Peter Dorr

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Peter Charles Dorr
Nicknames Nobby
Education BA, Lancaster; MA, UCW, Aberystwyth
Years at BGS 1975-2003
Home town Kettering, Northamptonshire

Peter Charles Dorr was a teacher of Public Affairs and History at Boston Grammar School.

Not in Front of the Children

An article by Peter Dorr in the Bostonian magazine 1981.

'Politics is boring', 'they're all the bloody same', 'If only we could keep politics out of education'. These are typical comments about politics and politicians that are decent enough to be printed in a gentleman's magazine. This cynicism rather than scepticism (the latter being healthy in the body politic) is so common that political scientists have coined the term 'depoliticization' to describe this lack of political interest or activity. Politics is not regarded as a valid and efficacious activity because it contributes little to reducing human misery and, indeed, can be considered to be dehumanising. To conclude from this that we must wait helplessly for Armageddon is as unrealistic as to seek an apolitical Utopia.

Idiotic Notion

In the West, politics originated as a participatory activity in some of the Greek city states, particularly Athens, in the fifth century BC. Greek philosophers created the 'master science'. Their government of the polis (city), and their attitude towards what they were accomplishing was expressed succinctly by Aristotle, "the man who can live outside the polis is either a beast or a god". They would be surprised by the idiotic notion that politics and education are separate, for as they observed, all educational systems reflect values of the governing elite, but are also the best method of instituting change.

The Classics were to be the basis of the political education of this elite or ruling class for centuries, even for reformers and revolutionaries such as J. S. Mill and Karl Marx who have contributed much to our contemporary society. Mill regarded politics as the 'school of public spirit' while Marx advocated free education for all children in public schools.

The extension of the franchise (the vote) and equally important Acts of Parliament to protect the participation of the ordinary voter from coercion and corruption, as well as the introduction of public education and the evolution of local government, ushered in democracy. Robert Lowe, who lamented this development, argued that we must educate our masters- the people. Are we succeeding over a century later? I think not.

An opinion poll in 1977, commissioned for the Hansard Society for Parliamentary Government, of 14 to 16 years old illuminated their ignorance of politics (I hasten to add that it was not primarily their fault). The majority thought that the Conservative Party wanted more nationalisation and that the I.R.A. was a Protestant organization! In one O-Level set here the majority did not know what the acronym N.A.T.O. stood for or the pur pose of the organisation.

This ignorance of even political knowledge is mainly due to the absence of political education in schools, with the possible exception ironically of the "public schools"; at Wellington this year there are sixty students studying 'A' level politics. This lamentable provision would surprise educators in the U.S. and Western Europe, where political education is part of the curriculum. Complete emulation is not the answer but neither is insular reaction.


The Hansard Society's Programme for Political Education in association with the Politics Association (the professional association of teachers of politics in schools,) recommends a concept, 'political literacy' as a criterion for teaching such a controversial subject. The programme defined political literacy as the combination of knowledge, skills and attitudes necessary to make a person both politically literate and able to apply this literacy. The 'O' level Economic and Public Affairs paper, which is taught in this school takes into account the first criterion only - knowledge. It encompasses too much knowledge and yet too little, too much for an aspirant Honourable Member (on the workings of Parliament), but is woefully inadequate on the workings and the policies of even the main political parties.

Skill-based learning is familiar in History teaching and of course in the Natural Sciences. In Politics the student is taught how to participate if he or she wishes to do so. The teacher should allow controversy not to creep in slowly but to walk confidently forward. The fear of parents and politicians that sacerdotal teachers will indoctrinate their impressionable offspring to usher in the socialist society or the monetarist miracle ignores the effects of scepticism and perversity.

Many teachers would be sceptical of these ideals anyway, and the sheer perversity of most pupils is the best antidote to indoctrination.

The checks of the power and influences of headmasters (who Churchill thought were more powerful in their domain than prime ministers), inspectors, parents, governors and councillors indicate the obstacles to a Jesuitical approach. After all students are not as well protected against the propaganda of parties, trade unions, employers organisations let alone the media and its most pervasive manifestations - commercial television and radio.

The last in this triad is the most subjective and therefore the most difficult to assess - attitudes. Freedom, fairness, reason and truth are part of the language of politics however much they might be a camouflage for power, authority, order and wealth. We should illustrate to students the possibilities of politics as well as its limitations. A political course combining knowledge, skills and attitudes would supply more adequate weapons for the adolescent than he/she possesses at present.

Fewer electors vote in British elections than they did a generation ago; even an innovation such as the first elections to the European Parliament produced an apathetic response. Similarly participation in parties, trade unions and company affairs are generally on the decline. Anyway these organisations hardly encourage the young to participate. However, pressure groups are more attractive to the young and idealistic; C.N.D., A.N.L. Rock Against Racism, Ecology groups and Punks for Peace (founded by an Old Bostonian) would lose some of their effect if it were not for the young.


The polarisation of British politics during the Seventies and the Eighties has some unfortunate and possibly dangerous consequences and I do not refer primarily to Bennery or Thatcherism, but to ultra left and ultra right groups such as the National Front and the British Movement on the right and Socialist Workers Party and Workers Revolutionary Party on the left. They are eager for the harvest ready for reaping in the increasing numbers of alienated youth. The comprehensive yet simplistic policies of these groups attractively packaged may at present have only minuscule support but their influence is often greater than their numbers. If nothing else persuades the reader of the necessity for political education this development should.

In September (1981) the Schools Council, the official body which advises H.M.G. on the curriculum, advocated the teaching of politics in primary and middle schools as well as in secondary schools. Regarding the latter their advice is even more pertinent, especially for Lincolnshire, because of the decision to equip all secondary schools with computers. This technology begs the question who's whom? Who controls and disseminates the information and analyses the computerisation? Political and moral problems attend such problems as Einstein realised during the Second World War. Dr. Strangelove seems humanistic compared with contemporary science now that a nuclear war can be unleashed by computers without reference to human volition.

The development of political literacy in secondary schools should awaken political interest and activity; partial success is the aim not a golden age of democracy. After all we have nothing to lose but our apathy!

See Also