Learning to love thy neighbour
The age of Trump trumpets along and Brexit negotiations continue to dominate the headlines in the UK . As our trans-national and British political divisions seem more distinct, the British Council’s Stephen Hull asks what this means for UK schools, and examines teachers’ unique role in building strong and inclusive societies.
UK Election: 42% / 40%. US Election: 46% / 54%. Brexit: 52% / 48%. Scottish independence: 45% / 55%.
These stark results show how split we are on some of the biggest recent political issues of today. As well as the results, another characteristic of the recent political upheavals has been the nature of the debate.
Politicians, the media and the public have all played their part. From the sacking of Labour MPs after Corbyn’s re-election, and the Daily Mail naming high-court judges enemies of the people, to the numerous violent protests in the US since Trump’s inauguration, it’s hard for many people to remember a time when politics was more ferocious than in the past two years. How can we not be left wondering what to do in this confused and overwhelming era?
Some people would react by campaigning even harder for their causes and offering harsh warnings on the pitfalls of populism. And if in charge of the National Curriculum, they would align it with received opinion to ensure schools produce citizens who think and vote the Right Way, and who share our collective values. And we’d all get on fine, right? But the classroom, as well as society, has never been more diverse (see Schools, pupils and their characteristics: January 2016), and homogeneity cannot and should not be the answer. We will not find hope in political evangelism; and conveying one view - uncritically - is not the answer.
Political campaigning needn’t stop following big decisions and we shouldn’t necessarily give up on our beliefs. However, reflecting on how to approach contentious differences of opinion and analysing disagreements can be an opportunity for growth – including in the classroom.
Going against your instincts, logic and beliefs to put yourself in someone else’s shoes is not easy. But if we truly empathise when it is difficult to do so, we increase our own capacity for compassion. When we actually comprehend another kind of logic we can often realise the limitations of our own. And by engaging those with whom we disagree, we are more likely to identify and tackle together the issues at the centre of our disagreements: inequality, disadvantage, desolation - these are shared challenges we can unite in addressing. Common humanity can prevail if we take longer to understand each other’s motivations. We won’t always end up agreeing; but we can learn graciousness.
In today’s world, understanding the concerns of our global neighbours is as important as understanding those of our next door neighbours. It is in this context educators have an opportunity to reflect on what it means to disagree in our connected but disparate global society, and the implications for today’s classroom.
The British Council offers teachers the opportunity to build global awareness and cross-cultural learning into the curriculum through its Connecting Classrooms programme. By visiting schools in different corners of the world, teachers bring back first-hand experience of the similarities and differences that unite and divide us. They discover where aspirations and ambitions align, and work with international colleagues to develop pedagogy for learning, work and society. The project builds long-term links between schools all over the world, which means pupils can also benefit directly by interacting with peers in another country.
For school leaders and teachers everywhere asking themselves how to contribute to a more unified society, connecting internationally can unlock powerful learning experiences. By drawing comparisons between the issues we face at home and those experienced by peers across the world, teachers can show students how to question the rhetoric used in the media, by politicians, and in their own communities. They can begin to critically draw their own conclusions and opinions. And coupled with the right skills in communication, collaboration and creative problem solving, the next generation can be one of hope and not despair.
As educators, we have a responsibility to prepare children for the opportunities, responsibilities and experiences of later life. As we live through political uncertainty and continue to feel the after effects of the global financial crisis, we should be giving children a capacity for empathy and critical thought. Schools should be havens for building trust and understanding; be that between ethnicities, one’s political opponents, or simply those who are different. Classrooms aren’t factories of political opinion, but they can be teachers of healthy debate and intercultural collaboration.
And if we prepare young people well, we will see the results in the nature of Prime Minister’s Questions and in the tone of the international headlines and hashtags of years to come. An engaged society is a productive one; and a trusting society is a safer one. 'Love thy neighbour' may sound old-fashioned - but far from being cliché, learning to love the other is now an educational imperative.
About the author
Stephen works at the British Council in London, where he is Senior Project Manager of the Connecting Classrooms programme in the UK.
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