Saturday, 12 July 2008

Grab 'em while they're young

(originally posted 07 June 2008)

I was recently speaking to a friend of my mother's who was educated in the late 50's and early sixties, partially at a convent school. Speaking of her school days, she recounted one history lesson, given my a middle aged, American nun. The lesson had been about Russian history, specifically the Bolshevik revolution, however, the nun soon strayed from the curriculum and began speaking about events which at the time were quite recent, the uprisings against soviet rule which occurred in Poland and Hungary.

According to my mother's friend, as the nun began describing the Russian response to the uprising in Hungary she became quite flushed, her eyes widened and her skin began to redden as she spoke, becoming more excised as she described the means by which the forces of the Soviet Empire crushed those who had attempted to throw off their rule. Finally the holy sister spoke of a huge mincing machine, which, she claimed, had been wheeled into Heroes Square at the centre of Budapest.

Once the mincing machine was installed in the square, hundreds of live, Hungarians were fed into it leaving the square flowing with blood and minced Magyars.

To an impressionable schoolgirl, the story horrified my mother's friend and was the source of nightmares for some years to come, also, as it was a “fact” she had been taught at school, by an authority figure, she admitted, with some embarrassment, that she had continued to believe well intyo her 20's that the Russians had actually minced Hungarians.

Her story struck a chord with me, as it bore significant similarities to an account I heard in a classroom some twenty years later.

However, by the time I was a schoolgirl, the politics of the classroom had undergone a 180 degree turn around, and few were the teachers who would think to speak ill of the Soviet Union or even Communist China for that matter, whatever, they got up to. The story had been updated and relocated significantly by the time it was told to me by a young male teacher with shoulder length hair, who insisted we address him as Andy. When Andy told us the story, he had replaced the grim faced Soviet troops, with sneering South African security servicemen, the Hungarian mincees' place had been taken by youths from Soweto, and the mincing machine replaced by a wood chipping machine.

Also, Andy was more subtle than the nun had been, or at least story telling techniques had been refined somewhat in the two decades since she had told her story. Unlike in the Holy sister's Budapest fantasy, which limited investigation, even in a pre-internet age could disprove, Andy did not suggest that the dismembering of live Africans took place in a public square, or was openly sanctioned by the Apartheid government, however, he assured us that it was happening daily behind closed doors in prisons across South Africa.

Not unlike my mother's friend had believed the nun twenty years before, I and, no doubt many in class that day, continued to believe what Andy had told us for quite a few years after we left school. For all I know, some of my old classmates may still believe it and that the woodchipping of Soweto residents was deliberately hushed up by South Africa's Truth and reconciliation commission.

Andy's target wasn't just South Africa, he was quite a buff on world affairs. albeit they had little to do with the subject he was supposed to be teaching us, which, as I recall was Biology. He was particularly interested in America, not her constitution or history, you understand, but rather more focused on alleged CIA involvement in Central America, indeed it is likely that some of Andy's ex-students left school believing that the United States defining moment was either the Iran Contra scandal or the overthrow of the Allende government in Chile (and they probably now read at the blog from whence our recent visitors came.).

A number of our other teachers has interests which were closer to home. Margaret Thatcher bestrode the world throughout my teenage years, much to the discomfort of those in the staff room, and it was a rare day which passed when the iniquities of the lady herself, or the her government in general, did not dominate at least one lesson. To this day Thatcher is still a divisive figure, however, we were not taught of a democratically elected leader with conservative social attitudes and stringent economic policies, but instead, those charged with forming our minds invariably portrayed her as if she were a cross between some right wing dictator and a serpent like Catherine De Medici plotting the massacre of St Bartholomew.

If it was, as appeared to be the case, that most of those who taught in schools during the 1980's, felt it their duty to ensure that that their pupils did not become part of Thatcher's constituency, some might ask if it is entirely appropriate for an educator to resort to the sort of political propaganda we saw at that time.

I have to admit that the propaganda seems to have worked on me, Thatcher fought her last election before I could vote for or against her, but ever since I could vote, the idea of voting Tory seems an anathema, and I actually moved straight from voting New Labour in the last three elections, to voting BNP last month, without even considering a flirtation with Mr Cameron.

No longer being a schoolgirl, I can not know for sure whether the classrooms of today are as openly political as they seemed in the 1980's. However as my son recently asked me about a great lost sub-Saharan civilisation which was far ahead of European civilisation in terms of education, health care and philosophy, but which was destroyed by white slave traders, and Voortrekkers, who killed all the great black scholars and claimed all their inventions for the West, I suspect they probably are. (Odd that Andy never taught us about that, but to be fair to him, it probably had not been invented when he was teaching my classmates and I.)

I think it unlikely that schools have become less political in the last twenty years, or that the political ideas being taught to our children are any less left wing. In my experience, the average youngster when leaving school is more open to left wing ideas that they generally are after a couple of years living in the real world.

I may be wrong, but it that is how it seems to me, what makes you think the same thought didn't occur to those panicking Labour MP's currently lobbying to get the voting age reduced from 18 to 16?

As the next election approaches, it may be that we see a growing number of odd looking individuals lurking at the school gates, if so, you need not worry, they are only after your kid's vote!

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