Teach­ing kids to ar­gue for Christ­mas is a les­son for us all

The Guardian - Journal - - Front page - Gaby Hinsliff

Christ­mas is can­celled. There can’t be many headteachers who haven’t oc­ca­sion­ally longed to type those three words and press “send”. ’Tis the sea­son of pre­cious teach­ing time dis­ap­pear­ing down the plug­hole of na­tiv­ity play re­hearsals, carol ser­vices, and Christ­mas craft days that leave glit­ter trod­den in­ex­tri­ca­bly deep into the car­pets. Is it re­ally worth the has­sle? But only Lady Lum­ley’s, a sec­ondary school in the North York­shire town of Pick­er­ing, has had the courage to take this thought to its log­i­cal con­clu­sion.

Its re­li­gious ed­u­ca­tion teacher told stu­dents that un­less they could make a per­sua­sive ar­gu­ment as to why it was worth both­er­ing with cards, par­ties, presents and Christ­mas trees then the whole thing would be binned and cel­e­bra­tions in school strictly con­fined to the baby Je­sus. The in­evitable parental furore, not to men­tion news­pa­per sto­ries about steal­ing Christ­mas, fol­lowed.

What should have given the game away is the phrase “per­sua­sive ar­gu­ment”. It’s one of the set writ­ten tasks kids have to mas­ter from pri­mary school on­wards, show­ing that they can build a case and use lan­guage to make their points more com­pelling, and it’s best taught us­ing a topic they feel pas­sion­ately about. So this wasn’t some Grinch-like out­burst but an ex­er­cise in mak­ing chil­dren think about which bits of Christ­mas mat­tered and which were com­mer­cialised faux tra­di­tions, heap­ing pres­sure on fam­i­lies who can ill af­ford it.

But it was also more broadly about get­ting them to con­sider why we do the things we take for granted, and how to ar­gue back if the con­sen­sus around the im­por­tance of those things were sud­denly to col­lapse. It was, head­teacher Richard Bram­ley wrote to par­ents, there­fore also an ex­er­cise in “the use and mis­use of so­cial me­dia, how to present our chal­lenge to the lo­cal and na­tional me­dia, and how not ex­press­ing views in an ap­pro­pri­ate way meant you were not lis­tened to. We were able to link this to po­lit­i­cal and lo­cal change in so­ci­ety.”

Lady Lum­ley’s, in other words, seems to have hit on an in­ge­nious way of teach­ing chil­dren how to de­fend ideas they didn’t imag­ine they would ever have to de­fend. In the cur­rent po­lit­i­cal cli­mate, that seems like an ex­traor­di­nar­ily use­ful skill.

Gov­ern­ments shouldn’t de­lib­er­ately do some­thing that they know will make peo­ple poorer. An­ti­semitism is wrong, with no ifs, buts or ex­cuses for peo­ple whose po­lit­i­cal opin­ions you other­wise share. Get­ting en­dorsed by the Ku Klux Klan should be the death knell for a US pres­i­den­tial bid. Democ­racy isn’t per­fect, but it beats all the al­ter­na­tives. The BBC may get it wrong some­times, but it is not part of some sin­is­ter po­lit­i­cal con­spir­acy against the truth. A decade or so ago, none of these would have been con­tro­ver­sial state­ments, and while there would al­ways have been peo­ple who dis­agreed they would have been in a slightly em­bar­rassed mi­nor­ity.

But that is no longer the case. Now those who dis­agree are vo­cal and an­gry, am­pli­fied by so­cial me­dia net­works which al­low them to con­nect with and re­in­force each other, ex­pos­ing what looked like a rock-solid con­sen­sus for the frag­ile thing it must al­ways have been. Once that il­lu­sion of con­sen­sus is gone, we are learn­ing that force of habit or cus­tom is no longer enough to hold things to­gether. Those truths long held to be self-ev­i­dent can, para­dox­i­cally, be the hard­est to ar­tic­u­late and de­fend – be­cause for so long no one has had to bother and so we’re hope­lessly out of prac­tice. But as es­tab­lished ar­gu­ments were grow­ing rusty with dis­use, it seems the other side were hon­ing theirs.

What makes David Runci­man’s book How Democ­racy Ends such an in­vig­o­rat­ing read is that it takes a seem­ingly set­tled ar­gu­ment – that democ­racy, like Christ­mas, is ob­vi­ously a good thing – and tests it to de­struc­tion. His book is very far from an ar­gu­ment for un­elected dic­ta­tor­ships, but it jolts the reader out of com­pla­cency. In parts of Europe, the time may be com­ing when the case for rep­re­sen­ta­tive pol­i­tics over tyranny must be ar­gued again, and it would be best if we were ready.

In Bri­tain, vi­cious con­spir­acy the­o­ries about Jews are seep­ing back into pub­lic dis­course, where they must once again be chal­lenged and de­feated. And if we do end up hav­ing a sec­ond ref­er­en­dum on Brexit, re­main­ers can’t make the mis­take of as­sum­ing vot­ers will fall into line now they’ve seen what Brexit looks like in prac­tice. For all the ly­ing and cheat­ing that marred the first ref­er­en­dum, the re­main camp lost at least in part be­cause it of­ten cam­paigned as if it couldn’t quite be­lieve we were even hav­ing this ar­gu­ment, or as if it was just a mat­ter of spell­ing out the bleed­ing ob­vi­ous. What David Cameron didn’t re­alise in time was how many peo­ple ei­ther didn’t ac­cept that leav­ing the EU would make the coun­try worse off, or sim­ply didn’t care. Odd as it sounds, it can no longer be taken as read that mak­ing a coun­try poorer and more chaotic is a bad thing, which means the case will have to be made next time from first prin­ci­ples.

Pre­sum­ably Lady Lum­ley’s RE teacher didn’t quite have all this in mind when she threat­ened to scrap Christ­mas, of course. Most fam­i­lies will take this story as noth­ing more than a re­minder that the Santa arms race has got out of hand and that we could all do with ton­ing it down a bit.

But there is a les­son here none­the­less, and it’s that the free­doms we cher­ish are not set in stone; they’re only as strong as the ar­gu­ments we can muster for them. Never take any­thing so much for granted that you al­most for­get why it was worth hav­ing in the first place.

This wasn’t some Grinch­like out­burst but an ex­er­cise in mak­ing chil­dren think about what bits of Christ­mas mat­tered

IL­LUS­TRA­TION: BEN JEN­NINGS

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.