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The teachers asking pupils to make the case for Christmas have a lesson for us all

Dec 9, 2018 by

Gaby Hinsliff –

Some basic truths are under threat, and we are out of practice at defending them

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.

Source: The teachers asking pupils to make the case for Christmas have a lesson for us all | Gaby Hinsliff | Opinion | The Guardian

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