Any suggestion that the election of Donald Trump or that the 52/48 Brexit, vote could not have been achieved without the support of a cohort of ignorant, poorly educated voters would be dismissed as the kind of patronising arrogance that means Hilary Clinton can spend more time with her granddaughter Charlotte than she had anticipated and that David Cameron, at just 51, is free to write his autobiography, to give a “frank” account of his premiership.
Nevertheless, that politically-correct dismissal, that parity-of-esteem response is not watertight or honest. Even if such accusations are usually made by those rejected by the democratic process — but privately celebrated by those who better manage that vote — how could a “grab ’em by the pussy” boor reach the Oval Office, how could the take-back-£350m-a-week lie work? It is not coincidental that these milestones were passed just as fake news became so influential. That threat has been recognised and all around the world programmes to help people winnow the fake news from the reliable are being put in place. In a post-truth, a post-shame age that project almost takes on the character of a rearguard action and, unless it is successful, our world will change more dramatically and quickly than we might care to imagine.
The idea that ignorance, wilful or fostered, might be such a player in the democratic process is not new, but it is exacerbated by ever-less ambitious mass education. A 2014 report by America’s National Assessment of Educational Progress showed that only 18% of high-school pupils had a grasp of US history. TV host Jay Leno exploited this vulnerability when he approached people on the street and asked basic questions about their history. That their responses were often cringe-worthy enough to pass a comedy can hardly be celebrated.
Any instinct we might have to sneer at young New Yorkers who did not know their George Washington from their Denzel Washington is as misplaced as Clinton and Cameron’s nose-holding. President Michael D Higgins underlined this when, on Monday at Trinity College, Dublin, he expressed “deep and profound concern” that history will, from September, not be a core subject for Junior Certificate students.
That this backward step is sandwiched between 1916 centenary celebrations and the jamboree to mark the centenary of our independence suggests a disconnect beyond parody. That it is taking place in a society where the past remains a daily political force, that it is taking place in a society where 90% of national schools are funded by the state but run by a religion, is not only stupid, it is dangerous.
Five years ago, when he was David Cameron’s education secretary, Michael Gove was forced to ditch a controversial new history curriculum. His political objective, to inculcate a new generation of Little Englanders, was foiled. What a wonderful celebration of our independence it would be if the teaching of history was restored to its rightful place at the heart of our education system. History is the constant gardener of civilisation and democracy and it hardly seems overly demanding that our children should know the difference between Daniel O’Donnell and Daniel O’Connell.