display | more...

On Monday I received an email from a friend of mine living in Israel. He asked me if the following, which I have quoted directly, were true:

Recently this week, UK removed The Holocaust from its school curriculum because it "offended" the Moslem population which claims it never occurred.

I was, to put it mildly, slightly bemused. As far as I was aware, Holocaust education remained a compulsory element of the Year 9 curriculum. Had it been removed, it had been done so with stealth to rival a covert SAS operation. There had been little or no media coverage, and, stranger still, I'd heard nothing on the teacher-vine. So I decided to poke about a bit and investigate the origins of this peculiar assertion, which had provoked such fury amongst non-British Jewry that they had taken it upon themselves to organise an on-line petition.

One visit to the Holocaust Educational Trust website confirmed that Holocaust education had not been removed from the UK curriculum, and another visit to Melanie Phillips' website elucidated how the rumour had evolved. Aside from the fact that I'd perused the website of a Daily Mail columnist, I found her explication of the rumour more disturbing than the prospect of Holocaust education losing its compulsory status.

A recent study has determined that many teachers are fearful of addressing any potentially emotive or controversial topic, should they offend a minority — or even majority — group. This wasn't just about the Holocaust, it was about the Crusades and the Slave Trade, too. And this left me shaking with rage and frustration. These might not be easy or pleasant aspects of history to convey to children, but it needs to be done. I trained as a teacher, a history teacher, and an aspect of my professional values and practice was precisely how to make these controversial and sensitive subjects accessible to children of any background, class, colour, creed, denomination, gender, nationality, or race. No, it wasn't always easy. No, it wasn't always fun. But it was one of the most satisfying aspects of the teaching experience.

In recent years teachers have found themselves bearing an increasing educational burden. Sex education, alcohol education, personal hygiene, Citizenship, even Britishness have all fallen within the remit of teachers. I can hear you clamouring: 'But you're teachers, education is your job!' Of course it is. I'm not denying that. I'm questioning exactly what it is that teachers should be required to impart to children.

I've taught plenty of things that I've found deathly boring: the Industrial Revolution really isn't my scene. I've had to teach things that I find confusing: asking me to offer a concise version of the Cromwellian Civil War will reduce me to tears. But that was my job, and it was a trade-off against the Peasants' Revolt and the French Revolution. More than anything, it was teaching the lessons when I believed that I had made a difference that made it worth-while. And guess which lessons those were? Yes, that's right, it was the controversial ones. Because you make a difference when you provoke thought and comment, and thought and comment is generated by problematic issues. Giving children the opportunity to understand their place in society, and why the world around them is the way that it is — for good or for bad — is definitely what teaching is about. This is how we empower them to make the choices that will help them to change the world.

I'm sad and I'm sickened that professional people are shying away from an objective approach to teaching children about pivotal aspects of our history. I'm scared that an opportunity to learn from humanity's mistakes, to challenge misconceptions, and to build what will ultimately be a stronger, more tolerant, better integrated society is not being seized. More than anything, I'm mad that the possibility of not teaching these undeniable historical occurrences that have shaped our world is being considered acceptable by some people; or even worse, that teaching a sanitised version of events might be an alternative.

History's a lot of things. It's good and it's bad; it's nasty and it's sweet; very occasionally it is obvious, but more than usual it's a puzzle. More than anything, it teaches us about who we are and why the world is the way that it is, which is why the Crusades, the Slave Trade, and the Holocaust need to be taught. Those who aren't prepared to address these subjects accurately, impartially, and with a view to achieving something shouldn't call themselves historians. And they certainly shouldn't think of themselves as teachers.