Auschwitz

Should we teach ‘difficult’ history in schools?

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One twenty-two-year-old (Instagram ‘influencer’ Freddie Bentley, pictured above) recently caused consternation by suggesting topics such as climate change and Brexit should be taught in schools rather than the history of the Second World War. It followed comments by contestants on the reality show The Apprentice that revealed that they weren’t sure of the dates of the conflict. Not surprisingly Bentley drew down a wave of criticism (much of it from tabloid newspapers and their readers) for suggesting current events were more important than historical ones.

Naturally, as a historian, I would argue that history is important, and should be taught in schools but surely children ought to learn about current affairs as well? Of course, there is a debate to be had about what history (who’s history perhaps) is taught and what lessons are drawn from it, and how it is taught.

Bentley commented that learning about the horrors of the world war and the deaths of millions of people had been traumatising and he worried for children’s mental health.

That shouldn’t mean it isn’t taught.

Future generations need to understand the sacrifices made by previous ones and they need to understand how something like the Holocaust could come about. Teaching should always be age appropriate, but we can’t completely shield our children from the tragedies of the past. Human history is shot through with inhumanity and the next generation is entitled to know about it.

However, I am a little suspicious of the reaction to Bentley’s Good Morning Britain interview. It seems as if those commentators have been quick to say that history is important whilst at the very same time ignoring or misrepresenting history when it suits them.

Surely one of the lessons of the second world war is that we should have a closer relationship between European nations to avoid future wars? Surely the lesson to be learned from the Holocaust is that singling out people on account of their religion, race, sexuality or disability leads to state sponsored murder and is abhorrent?

Surely the lesson we might draw from the war in the Pacific is that nuclear weapons are disproportionally destructive and should be banned?  Indeed, we also might learn that warfare is abhorrent and so all arms manufacture should be tightly restricted at least, and perhaps even prohibited?

None of these suits the agendas of the politicians that most tabloid editors give their support to however. These lessons from history are simply ignored or reinterpreted to suit a narrow world view that allows race hate, unbridled arms dealing, nationalism, and economic inequality, to persist.

Moreover, the real challenge to our children’s future – the climate emergency – is side lined and relegated to a discussion of the rights of people to protest. Climate change is the single most important issue for our society and I think Bentley was probably right to say that it should be taught in schools. Not at the expense of learning about WW2,, however, but as well as.

The reality is that Climate Change is terrifying, and we risk traumatizing our children just as much as learning about Belsen and Auschwitz does. But since the general public doesn’t seem to have woken up to the dangers of the climate emergency, and the tabloids and most politicians don’t seem to be doing a very good job of educating us on it, the only hope we have is for our schools to inculcate a concern for the planet at an early age.

History is vital to a rounded education but if we don’t look – and look urgently – to the future no one will be around to learn the lessons that history teaches us anyway.

Drew Gray, Subject Lead Humanities