Modern World History

Last word: the lessons of history

As stated at the outset, the history of the 20th Century seems to be one of prolonged and often pitiless violence - a 'War of the World' as Niall Ferguson called it. Of course, violence has a fascination, especially for boys (I was one of them) but the message of education has to be a peaceful one if only because of the obvious suffering that war brings to innocent men, women and children. To paraphrase John Donne: no one person's life is worth more than another's and every unnecessary death lessens the value of human life in general.

Yet we can't preach an unqualified pacificism. Apart from anything else most children will see it as hopelessly out of touch with the reality of their own lives, in and out of school. There are occasions when force is both necessary and justified, for example to restrain a bully. There is a clear distinction between those who aim to inflict as much suffering as possible - for example terrorists - and those who try to minimise the effects of violence they use, even when they seek to use it effectively. The difference emerges most clearly in the treatment of prisoners.

Whilst avoiding an unhealthy obsession with conflict therefore children do need to understand its causes and nature. From the foundation stage onwards fairy stories show how jealousy, ignorance, greed and ambition can threaten and injure. It is not hard for them to see that quarrels between nations can have similar causes and consequences. Nazism was essentially an angry response to the sense of betrayal felt by many Germans after World War One - 'militant nostalgia' Peter Ustinov called it. It achieved some success but lacked the internal restraints essential to prevent any regime from becoming tyrannical. It overreached itself and was destroyed. Most Key Stage 2 children can grasp this story in its essentials.

The point is that in the process millions of individual lives were ended prematurely, mainly because those in charge believed that cruel means were justified by benevolent ends. In the end they fell in love with cruelty itself but their first mistake had been to confuse two different kinds of courage: the kind that proceeds from lack of empathy or imagination and the kind that takes all points of view into account and reluctantly embraces the path of necessity, hoping always for reconciliation. Such is the courage of a Ghandi, a Nelson Mandela or a Martin Luther King. It is the only kind that benefits the soul of mankind and the only kind of courage that will see us through difficult times ahead.

'Without vision, the people perish' says the Book of Proverbs (Chapter 29, verse 18) to which it might be countered 'beware men of vision, for they tend to be blind to everything else...'