In many ways I found being an angry young man much easier than I am finding being a middle-aged moderate. In what I call my “Che years”, I had the benefit of certainty. I, and the rest of my leftist alliance, was right about everything and anyone who disagreed was plain wrong. In these years, I had two explanations for why someone might vote Tory; the first was that they were wicked and the second was that they were ignorant.
Neither explanation meant I had to engage or even talk to people with views opposed to mine. In principle, if they were wicked then my role was to bring about the changes that meant their downfall, and if they were ignorant my job was to teach them why they were wrong. In practice this never really became an issue because I curated my social circle to ensure those I mixed thought as I did. It meant that I never had my own views challenged and never had the opportunity to challenge anyone else’s either.
This kind of parochial and tribal thinking results in this sort of well-intentioned poppycock. What is most shocking isn’t that the delegate who told Labour Conference that well-educated children would never be Tories believes an outcome of a good education to be the obliteration of political diversity, but that he appears not to understand just how worrying this message is. It is a message that fails to understand schools of political thought are thousands of years old and that clever, informed and moral people have disagreed over fundamental questions throughout human history. A reading of an illustrated child’s introduction to philosophy would be enough to realise this. But then, if the delegate is convinced he’s right as much as he seems to be why would he bother? After all, he’s already decided that a good education would mean nobody would disagree with him, so why bother teaching any opposing views at all, apart from to point out what nonsense they are?
And this is where it gets even more disturbing. There are lots of sensible reasons someone might choose to vote for a conservative party (although of course I’d disagree with most), and if a teacher is saying they think otherwise this will affect what and how their pupils are taught. Tory teachers (and there are plenty) might, in response, say that they believe that the outcome of a good education is all pupils voting Tory and the eradication of the Labour Party. Should they say this loudly and proudly at the Conservative Party conference? If they did would it be acceptable for other delegates to applaud and roar their approval? The question is, of course, rhetorical. A good education does not indoctrinate young people but introduces them to interesting ideas that come across the whole range of the political spectrum.
Anything else, bluntly, is a betrayal of democracy.
And in that betrayal of democracy is the fulcrum around which a dangerous vicious cycle spins. If we teach, or even imply to children that everyone who disagrees with us is either wicked or products of an imperfect education we also teach them that there is no need to learn about, or engage with the views and arguments that oppose their own. This entrenches difference and can push reasonable people into silos, from which they lob empty but destructive rhetorical bombs at each other.
In this context nothing can be learned and no progress can be made.
What a shame this is. We learn a lot from discussing things with people who have different opinions. My conservative and liberal friends convinced me of the transformative power of teaching children large amounts of knowledge and expecting them, whatever their background, to behave well when in school. I like to think in discussions over what exactly children should be taught, I’ve shifted their views too. The point is that these discussions, and mutual evolution and development, simply cannot happen if we’re all in different rooms. So this is just a call for some old-fashioned civility, common sense and mutual respect. All things that seem in lamentably short supply at the moment.
Ben Newmark is a teacher and a member of the Labour Party.