• Frank Furedi
  • Frank Furedi
  • Sociologist, commentator and author

Don’t blame the young for thinking JFK’s assassination sparked WWI - they’ve been tragically failed

Back in the early 2000s I first began to notice it: fewer and fewer of my first-year students seemed to know what the Industrial Revolution was.

One of the most important social changes in British history — the event that defined the class system and underpinned everything they were going to study at university over the next three years — was a complete blank to these young people.

Alarmed and baffled, I asked them who their heroes from the past were. If they didn’t admire the great leaders, inventors and reformers of the 18th and 19th centuries, who did inspire them?

That drew another blank. When pressed for answers, some came up with The Beatles and other pop and film stars, but no historical figures seemed to have registered.

Take the Duke of Wellington, for example. They hadn’t even heard of the Battle of Waterloo — a conflict which profoundly changed the course of European history.

I also discovered that most were ignorant of even the most basic facts about World War II.

So it came as no surprise to me to read yesterday that a poll of 2,000 adults discovered that almost half of ‘millennials’ — that is the current generation of under-30s — believe Sir Winston Churchill was Britain’s Prime Minister during World War I. (The names of the holders of the office, H.H. Asquith and David Lloyd George, presumably meant nothing to them.)

It was, however, shocking to discover that one in ten actually thinks Margaret Thatcher was running the country between 1914 and 1918, while a fifth of them believe that Britain was at war with France — our ally — rather than the Germans.

Even worse, according to the poll by the military charity SSAFA, six per cent said the war had been triggered by the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

On a personal level, it’s impossible to teach a social science course unless students have some grasp of how life was lived in the past and the events that influenced it.


Sociology measures change in history, and that can’t be done when students think Churchill might have been someone who played centre forward for Manchester United.

This ignorance begins early, and it’s not fair to heap all the blame onto the young. The real fault lies with teachers, academics and politicians who set the curriculum.

History plays very little part in lessons before pupils are in their early teens, and even then it is taught ineffectually — with little emphasis on facts and even less on chronology.

If they are lucky, they might receive some teaching about World War II, but it’s unlikely to extend to a thorough groundwork in dates. That renders much of what they learn meaningless: if pupils don’t understand the order of events which brought Hitler to power in Germany, for instance, how can they comprehend the significance of each choice, each political move that followed?

Much more to the point, how will they recognise parallels with contemporary current affairs? To appreciate what is truly going on, both past and present, we have to know the sequence, how the story unfolds. Wars, like every other story in history, have a beginning, a middle and an end. And that means dates.

But teaching dates means expecting pupils to commit facts to memory, learning by heart, and that is at odds with the modern trend for what you might call learning by emotion. Today’s educators sneer at rote-based lessons. They think bare facts have no value. They want students to ‘emotionally identify’ with the past instead.

So they might be invited to write about how it felt to be caught up in a certain historic event — to be a suffragette who was force fed in prison, or a conscientious objector in 1915 — rather than what actually happened and why.

Just as disturbing is the fact that when children are taught about World War I, it will almost certainly be from the viewpoint that this was a terrible period in our country’s history — the ‘woe and horror’ as Iraq war veteran Colonel Tim Collins said this week, and not as a great military victory for Britain and her allies.

In this context, patriotism is despised, the courage of our troops decried as naivety, and the millions who sacrificed their lives are pitied, not admired.


The only conclusion to be drawn from that version of history is that there’s no point in fighting for anything worthwhile. It’s a destructive, cynical attitude.

A century ago, our society held values dear such as heroism, duty, responsibility and courage, but these are not ideals promoted today. They have been replaced by the thinking of trendy educationalists who espouse ‘therapeutic values’ such as self-esteem, diversity and the importance of ‘feeling good’ about yourself.

It’s small wonder that so many millennials don’t know who Churchill was. Their outlook on life — actually very inward looking — is so utterly different to that of 100 years ago that they have no hope of understanding what drove him first as a young soldier and then as wartime leader.

Heroism, a quality that inspired men to sacrifice their lives for their comrades, and women to endure appalling ordeals to win the vote, is regarded now by many under-30s as bone-headed, almost comical posturing. The notion of standing and fighting for a belief is incomprehensible — unless, of course, you can take a selfie while doing it and look good on social media.

As amusing as their ignorance is on one level, it should worry us. This isn’t just the evaporation of history but the loss of our highest values, which are becoming detached from everyday life.

If we ignore the lessons of history, if it is no longer a source of wisdom for today, then we are abandoning our past.

David Cameron, when Prime Minister, was one of the worst offenders, talking repeatedly about the ‘Bad Old Days’ of British history. To him, Empire and colonialism meant nothing but racism and brutality, and he was desperate to distance himself — and us — from it.

Sadly, such narrow attitudes and ignorance continue to be perpetuated in the education system, including at even the most prestigious universities.

University College London launched a campaign called ‘Why is my curriculum white?’ which criticised the domination of ‘Eurocentric’ writers in the curriculum. This week, the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London announced it was ‘decolonising’ its curriculums.

It’s as though some academics are afraid their students will be infected by the past if they become aware of it.

Any mention of the Victorian era today conjures up images of gloom, disease, child labour, brutal sexism, slavery and exploitation — without any recognition that the 19th century was when our country led the world in beginning to tackle those very issues.

This sense of disconnection from the past percolates through to the way we talk to children. We no longer discuss history in a positive way, but continually portray the past as an unenlightened era populated only by the ignorant and cruel.


We should not be surprised that millennials have no admiration for great figures of the past, and turn to celebrities for moral inspiration.

We have to combat this — and soon. History must be given a more prominent place much earlier in the curriculum. In my view, it deserves to be on an equal footing with basic grammar and mathematics.

And it must be taken seriously, not reduced to a touchy-feely subject that encourages pupils merely to explore their own emotions.

It’s not enough to ask them to emote about what it must have been like to be a soldier in the Duke of Wellington’s army — they need to know the chronology of the Napoleonic campaign, how and when Britain stymied the rise of a European dictator — and then did the same thing a century later during World War I.

Britain has so much to be proud of. We need to say that, loud and often, so that the young understand it.

Without that, they will have no sense of who the British are.

Contact me

If you want to get in touch or keep updated with my activities, either email me, connect with me on LinkedIn or follow me on Twitter.