As a student in the 1980s and 1990s, I took part in many classroom debates. As a form tutor in England, I used to have to orchestrate the occasional debate as part of the school’s citizenship programme. Largely ignorant of the relevant facts, students would nonetheless be encouraged to take a position – which was usually that of their parents – on a hot-button social issues such as hunting with dogs or whether beauty contests are bad. The debate was unedifying and I always sensed that perhaps there was a better way.
Yet there is one positive comment that we can make about such classroom activities: they reflect real life. We have just seen precisely such a debate take place prior to the UK referendum on whether to leave the European Union.
I did not vote in this referendum. My future is in Australia and it didn’t seem right to cancel-out the vote of someone whose future is in the UK. If I had chosen to vote then I would have reluctantly voted to remain in the EU. It’s worth briefly exploring why.
I have no love for the European Union. It is undemocractic and absurd. The fact that the European Parliament has to pack-up once a month and move everything from Brussels to Strasbourg, that this is to please the French, that everyone else thinks it’s mad and that nothing can seemingly be done about it tells you much about the organisation and how it operates. I also think that the common agricultural policy needs to go or be radically reformed as well as the common fisheries policy. I don’t see these as operating in Britain’s interest.
So why would I have voted to stay? I would have worried about the economic uncertainty of leaving, especially at a time when the UK has such a low balance sheet due to the bank robberies of 2008 and when much of the country is still feeling the effects of austerity: that mechanism by which the poor bail-out the rich. I would also have been concerned about the consequences for the English regions who are likely to suffer most from any downturn. Admittedly, many of those in the most deprived economic groups might wonder what they had to lose.
Much of this wasn’t captured by the public debate and the proponents on either side. The leave campaign made absurd claims about extra funding for public services and banged on about immigration. The remain side did address the economic arguments but in a silly, pantomime kind of way which insulted everyone’s intelligence. As I now scan social media, I see people blaming the leave vote on ignorant racists. No doubt, there are plenty of those about. But I also think there are also many who voted remain in an ignorant way – they just wanted to signal how cosmopolitan and virtuous (not racist) they were.
I moved into a house in the dodgy end of Watford in 2004. When I left for Australia in 2010 the area had already started to change through Eastern European immigration. When I returned for a visit in 2014 we decided to drive past the old house. It was 11.00 am and a group of about five white guys were stood at the end of the street drinking beer. It’s not illegal to do this – in many ways Britain is still a remarkably free country. But you can imagine how the elderly, white, working class residents of that street might have felt. I have a friend who still works in a local school where she claims that the majority of students are now from Eastern Europe.
I understand that such areas largely voted to remain but it is not racist to coolly discuss the impacts of large-scale migration. In fact, it is necessary. The working class people living in these districts are unlikely to make use of the benefits of free movement. They, their children and grandchildren are unlikely to move to Spain any time soon. That’s a middle class perk. And yet they are the ones who are being asked to make the greatest accommodations to change.
In education, we are starting to move away from ignorant classroom debates. Some are starting to recognise that before you can think critically about a subject, you need to know something about it and so systematically explaining concepts has become a priority. I think that a new politics needs to do the same. We need less name-calling and more discussion of the way that the common agricultural policy works. Facts won’t tell us what is moral but they will certainly enrich and improve our moral decision making.
As a traditional educator, I don’t consign people to categories or assume that everything comes from within. I believe that people can be taught, that ideas can be transmitted and that minds can grow and change. This is an optimistic ideology of self advancement through informed choice. I believe in people and that if we give them a better standard of public debate then they might just surprise us.