Sadly far too many people wish to ignore rather than remember the brave soldiers who fought to defend their country in the past. As we head toward the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War, it is evident that our age-old ritual of Remembrance is often derided by those who ought to know better.
There has always been a small minority of conscientious objectors to the wearing of a poppy, with whose views I disagreed but respect. Yet in recent years hostility towards the wearing of a poppy has become increasingly unrestrained.
“The poppy has become a symbol of racism - I will never wear one again,” wrote journalist Robert Fisk a couple of years ago. Last year a columnist for the Independent referred to Remembrance Sunday as a “litmus test” for a “nauseating pub-bore nationalism”.
In recent weeks hostility towards remembering those who sacrificed their life for Britain crystallised on campuses. Incidents, such as the rejection of Remembrance Day poppies by Cambridge University Students’ Union last month, or the statement made by the president of Southampton Students’ Union, threatening to paint over a mural dedicated to “white” war heroes is symptomatic of the malaise and confusion regarding the memorialisation of the Great War.
On campuses, opponents of Remembrance Day draw on identity politics to communicate their hostility to Britain’s past. What Southampton Union President Emily Dawes really meant, when she stated that the “mural of white men” should be taken down or daubed over was that those who died on the battlefields of Europe should be forgotten rather than remembered.
The students who believe that the soldiers who fought on the fields of Flanders are just a bunch of dead white males are the products of a culture that portrays Britain’s history as the “bad old days”.
The school curriculum is far more devoted to the projects of pointing out the blemishes on Britain’s past than in drawing attention to this nation’s achievements.
Sadly many educators regard pride in one’s community and nation as a mild form of xenophobia or racism. Consequently, any expression of national pride is regarded as a form of prejudice that needs to be neutralised in the classroom. A classic example of this is illustrated in a report authored by Michael Hand and Jo Pearce of the Institute of Education. They insisted that “patriotism should not be taught in school”.
The report - based on a survey of 300 teachers - concluded that patriotism should only be taught as a “controversial issue”. What that means is that it should be treated as a sentiment that deserves to be condemned rather than affirmed. Hand and Pearce went on to claim that Britain, with its “morally ambiguous” history, should no longer be made into an object of school pupils’ affection
They asked: “Are countries really appropriate objects of love?” They implicitly called for hostility towards “national histories”, which are all apparently “morally ambiguous”. Their advice is that “loving things can be bad for us”, especially when the “things we love are morally corrupt”. The message they communicated is that we should morally condemn any attempt to celebrate a British “way of life”.
Three-quarters of the teachers surveyed by Hand and Pearce apparently agreed with the outlook of a patriotic-free education, and said they felt they had an obligation to alert their pupils to the hazards of patriotic feelings.
The report was published a decade ago. Since that time tens of thousands of young people have been “educated” to disavow any patriotic feelings. So is it any surprise that by the time they get to university many of these students have internalised the culture of cynicism that has been directed towards Britain’s history? That the young are so often educated to turn their back on Britain’s past has consequences that go way beyond whether or not they wear a poppy.
Back in 1914, the ideals of fighting for a cause attracted millions of young people to their nation’s call. A century later it is far from certain how the young would respond to a major threat to our security.
Afew days ago, General Sir Nick Carter, the head of Britain’s Armed Forces indicated that he was worried about whether young people understood “the notion of service”. In particular he appeared to be far from certain whether the young could be relied on to support the military in the future.
General Carter drew attention to the generational divide in attitudes towards the military and implied that something has gone seriously wrong in the way that the young have been educated by society.
The problem is not the fault of the young. No doubt many would be ready to serve if their nation faced a serious threat. The real problem is that instead of learning to become inspired by the best features of Britain’s past they have been taught to become estranged from their own history.
Taking our history seriously does not mean being uncritical. Mistakes were made during the First World War. But learning from them offers lessons for society today. The past is who we are. The least we can do is to remember those who sacrificed their lives for their nation.
The Roman philosopher Cicero warned that “to be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child”.
He added: “For what is the worth of human life, unless it is woven into the life of our ancestors by the records of history?”
Published by Express