The lowering of the legal voting age from 18 to 16 years old is a policy now supported by not only the Labour party, but also the Liberal Democrats, the SNP and Plaid Cymru. Yet the national curriculum contains no compulsory political education, not even included in PSHE lessons. Arguably, and also in my experience, the responsibility for educating the nation’s youth on how exactly and by whom their government is ran, is passed onto history teachers. Should history really be relied upon to explain politics?
The history classroom, with its time for reflection, provides a place to understand politics. Political history is brimming with examples of political successes and failures. The twentieth century alone includes the communist Soviet Union and the far right fascism of the Third Reich; it was my year 9 history teacher who first explained to me the right to left political spectrum. The Henrician reformation, a classroom classic, introduces ideas of the government’s relationship with the church to pupils while the American Civil Rights movement and the struggle of the suffragettes show the importance of a representative democracy.
But even when the study of history encourages independent thought and skills of evaluation, there will always be some level of influence held by the teacher, especially at a pre-university level. The way in which history is taught to us as children has a great impact over how we see and understand the world. When the presentation of the past is so malleable, there are inevitably concerns over the influence this has upon our opinions. Many sneer at the ‘Baldrick generation’ and believe them to unquestioningly lap up the post-World War Two ‘lions led by donkeys’ rhetoric. While I believe ‘indoctrination’ to be far too strong a term to use, unlike sciences and languages, the humanities open themselves up to opinions, and these opinions – in spite of teachers’ good intentions – usually make subconscious appearances within the national curriculum and into the classroom.
The relationship between historical education and its influence over the development of our political understanding continues within a university environment. It is interesting to hear certain perspectives voiced in seminars, where debate is encouraged. I felt this was particularly the case in my Introduction to the history of the British Empire unit. When discussing matters of imperialism and its legacy, I couldn’t help but see the links with current political and international issues. Learning about Britain’s empire gave me a much better rounded understanding of international relations today and the importance of institutions such as the UN. My experiences as a history undergraduate have enriched my political education and understanding, as university allows time for the development of all-important independent thought.
With only 4.6% of A level students in 2014 opting to study Government and Politics, the vast majority of people will never receive a formal political education. Evidently, much of our political education, if not taught at home, is taught indirectly through history lessons. Of course, it is possible for this crucially important task to be achieved via the teaching of history, but unfortunately England is the only country in Europe where history is not compulsory for students beyond the age of 14. Furthermore, despite a rise in the past few years, less than half of school-aged children take GCSE history.
Few would deny that an educated voter is a better voter, but if this is the case I question why there is not compulsory education in politics or political history in our current national curriculum. If plans to lower the voting age to 16 are successful I believe it would be an error to neglect thoroughly teaching current and future generations how their government works.