Sunday, September 5, 2010

Allan Peachey: Protecting Democracy through Education

Some weeks ago I wrote about the importance of science in the protection of democracy. That drew some nice comments in my direction and the ire of one economics teacher. Today I want to write about the importance of history in the protection of democracy, and no doubt draw praise from history teachers and the ire of a few more economics teachers! I should probably start with a declaration of personal interest. I am an historian by academic training and I have remained one by personal inclination for the nearly 40 years since I graduated. I remain an avid reader of anything historical. I always thought that was one of the great things about history – it can be the interest of a lifetime and stimulate a wide range of book reading. I sometimes say that when I retire from politics (and anyone with an eye on the Tamaki seat will have to wait a while longer!) I intend to spend my days watching the history channel on Sky. Some of the most pleasurable years of my teaching life were those spent teaching history.

Perhaps I had better pause for a moment and talk about economics. For several years I taught economic studies to junior students and economics to examination classes. You have only to look at the standard of political debate in this country to realise how poorly economics is understood, particularly in a market context. The British Labour Party as late as the mid-1990s still had the “socialisation of the means of production, distribution and exchange” as one of its fundamental principles. And I am convinced the New Zealand Parliament retains its share of adherents to that failed dogma. And the standard of financial literacy in this country remains poor. So what can we do about it?

Well, I know where I would start and that would be to get rid of the current social studies curriculum being taught in schools. What New Zealand youngsters need is not lessons in sociology and political correctness. What they need, and what they are more interested in, is lessons in the history, geography, civics and economics of the country in which they live along with a bit of world context. I would like to see every New Zealand youngster, by the time they finish Year 10 at school (age 15) and move into national examinations having a sound understanding of what it means to be a New Zealander. What they are taught should be accurate and factual, not loaded with personal opinion or bias. One of the best books that I can ever remember reading on New Zealand’s system of government was called “Our Country”. It was a factual description of how we are governed. Full of facts and interesting things. And when did I read that book? As a child. It was one of my father’s old school text books from the late 1930s when he was at the end of primary school. Those incidentally, were the days when you had to buy your own text books.

That is why I love some of the things that the new British Minister for Schools, Nick Gibb, is saying. In fact I could have written some of it myself. Try this for size:

Knowledge is a basic building block for a successful life and children need a grasp of the facts to master subjects such as science, maths, English and history … Instead, the education system is downplaying knowledge and concentrating on teaching “skills”.

As an aside, but relevant to an earlier article, this is what Gibb has to say about science:

Getting to grips with the basics – of elements, of metals, of halogens, of acids, of what happens when hydrogen and oxygen come together, of photosynthesis, of cells – is difficult. But once learned, you have the ability to comprehend some of the great advances in genetics, physics and other scientific fields that are revolutionising our lives.

Anyway, back to what I originally set out to write about, the importance of history. To quote Gibb again, “the facts and dates and narrative of our history in fact join us all together”.

Teaching history, or more accurately teaching knowledge in history, is one of the few ways that we have of saving democracy from politicians. So much of politics and government today is about managing the media and spin. Knowledge of history counters spin. The only way a country will get better government is when its citizens know enough and are confident enough to counter and reject spin. Just as important is to counter the demagogues, with which history is littered. Knowledge of history teaches us to recognise the demagogues, those who use mob oratory and/or untruths and/or fraudulent reasoning to advance their view of the world.

Well informed citizens with the critical reasoning skills that come from being taught the knowledge of subjects like history (and science) are the greatest protection that democracy has.


Mike Butler said...

Couldn't agree more. According to Mark Sheehan, in “The role of school history”, New Zealand History Online,, New Zealand is unique in that history is not explicitly taught to all students. For over 30 years historians, journalists and teachers have noted the lack of New Zealand history being taught and the woeful historical ignorance of young New Zealanders. Ironically students today study less New Zealand history at school than they did in the past. In the 1966 School Certificate history syllabus at least a third of the 18 topics examined each year were New Zealand topics

Thomas said...

"...recognise the demagogues, those who use mob oratory and/or untruths and/or fraudulent reasoning to advance their view of the world."

I love it! As a teacher I am finding it fascinating how this is in practice within schools. I pulled out of the Te Kotahitanga "research" programme based upon the untruths and fraudulent reasonings taken by the proponents. I am not a colonising rapist nor a deficit theorist, because history does not support this as truth.


Anonymous said...

There should be more emphasis on the history of civilization (Western) since we live in one, for now anyway, and far less on insignificant bush wars etc. and glorification of savages.
How many kids will ever read JS Mill "On Liberty"? How many kids know anything of ancient Greece and what made them unique among all cultures? How many kids are taught the massive benefits of the industrial revolution to all the people of that time?
Nope none of that in the schools today, just negativity and ignorance about the culture that lifted us out of poverty and short miserable lives.
Hope you strike a few blows for for those of us who know where all that is good in the world came from before you leave.

Steve Schapel said...

While I have a lot of sympathy with much of the sentiment behind this article, I think we must also acknowledge a problem. Talking about the "facts" of scientific "knowledge", or "knowledge" of history, is a dangerous thing. It is easy to succumb to a false sense of security, and act as if the knowledge is solid. However, what we "know" about history is very interpretive. The information we are given, the parts that are emphasised, and the way it is presented, serves to steer us towards an understanding that is (at best) unavoidably biased. I would say that most people's understanding of history reflects more about the values and prejudices of their teachers, than it does about the "facts". And in the realm of science, it is becoming increasingly (and shockingly) apparent that the same applies, as demonstrated by the example of the disjuction between the "science" and the "facts" of climate change.

John Ansell said...

Steve has a point of course.

I'd like to see civics taught in a way that allows students to hear the views of both Left and Right, and be encouraged to debate and make up their own minds.

That's what they'll have to do later in life anyway, and if the political parties were invited to share in the process, it would be a fair contest of ideas and may the most coherent platform win.

I certainly agree with Allan Peachey that a knowledge of facts (as far as we can be sure that they are, in fact, facts! - my stepson lost marks the other day for saying that global warming was caused by the sun) is sadly lacking in our young and should be remedied.

It's hard not to conclude that the Left via their teacher supporters have not deliberately replaced the teaching of facts with the teaching of political correctness, judging by the number of consecutive years my kids have been force-fed the Treaty of Waitangi in social studies.

More parental access to the classroom might be a good idea too.

I for one, Allan, wish you had more responsibility for our education system as I've always enjoyed your ideas.

I just can't believe you'd be a very happy camper in a National Party that's to the left of the Australian Labor Party.