The Challenge of Educating for 21st Century Citizenship

Margaret Thatcher

Margaret Thatcher was born the daughter of a grocer in 1925, and went on to earn a degree in chemistry from Somerville College, Oxford, and a master of arts degree from the University of Oxford. She worked for several years as a research chemist and then as a barrister, specializing in tax law. Elected to the House of Commons in 1953, she held several ministerial appointments, including Minister of Education and Science from 1970-74. She was elected leader of the opposition Conservative Party in 1975. In 1979 she was elected prime minister, and served in that position—winning re-election in 1983 and in 1987—until resigning in 1990. In 1992 she was elevated to the House of Lords, becoming Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven.

At the Atlanta Shavano seminar in February 1999, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher spoke about the enduring truths education must provide to each generation. Here is an edited version of some of her remarks.

Years ago, I had the opportunity to visit a Russian school that was participating in a British-Russian exchange program. I observed that the Soviet system of education did an excellent job of teaching science, mathematics, language, and literature. Indeed, if these were the only subjects taught, the pupils seemed to be receiving the best, most straight-forward, and most traditional form of education.

But, of course, the Soviet system did not teach only these subjects. It taught many others tainted by communist indoctrination, deliberate falsehoods, and ruthless attacks on the West. It also intentionally refrained from teaching students about the concept of freedom and about freedom’s spiritual and historical roots.

I was deeply disturbed. I had always felt that a good education, founded upon liberty and morality, is mankind’s most valuable asset. This was the kind of education I was fortunate enough to receive in the small town in which I lived. It was reinforced at home, too. My father left school at age 13, but he was very well read, and he constantly reminded me that education was the key to understanding. He read one excellent book a week. (I well remember, since I had to go to the library and fetch it.) Moreover, his grocer’s shop was not only a place where one bought staple goods but also a place where, on Friday and Saturday nights when the shop was open late, customers could find lively, informed debate on the most important questions of the day.

It was the mid-to-late 1930s. These were very dangerous times. Everyone was keenly aware that great decisions and great events lay ahead. Now, in the 1990s, as we face another momentous period in history, there seems to be less serious discussion about the fundamentals of liberty and morality. Ordinary citizens still gather to discuss important questions, but they are less well informed, less able to support their arguments. One reason is that they aren’t being taught about liberty and morality in school. There are still many good schools run by good teachers and supported by many good parents and good communities, but for the last several decades the general systems of education in the United States and Great Britain have been floundering.

If educators—and citizens—are to find their way again, one of the first things they need to do is to reevaluate their basic positions on two issues that support the whole edifice of society: the issues of human nature and experience.

Let me start with human nature. Human nature, by definition, doesn’t change. That isn’t to minimize the effects of culture, circumstance, or individual differences. What is important to remember is that the basic instincts of the human being are constant. On one level, this is cause for optimism. No matter how complicated our domestic problems are, no matter how tense our relations with other nations are, we can be sure that, deep down, there is some spark of humanity, some urge to do what is right, to which we can always appeal.

On another level, this is cause for pessimism. There is an equally important and equally unchanging darker side of human nature. Without law, without the institutions of civil society, without religion, without the values that promote rather than discourage self-restraint, that darker side will prevail. Half the countries of the world claim to be democratic, but being democratic is not enough, for a majority cannot turn what is wrong into right. In order to be considered truly free, countries must also have a deep love of liberty and an abiding respect for the rule of law.

The second issue, experience, involves a practical and philosophical appreciation of history. Countries have to look at what works and what doesn’t work in society and in government. What we in the West have learned is that the state can support the institutions and traditions that make for a prosperous and fulfilling life, but it cannot generate them. They must allow the distinctive talents of individuals to flourish if they want to flourish. If they dwarf, crush, distort, manipulate, or ignore individuals, society cannot progress.

The history of mankind reveals that progress is not preordained. So far, it is only free nations that have discovered the secret of continual advance. Why? Because they are the only ones to subscribe to Western values, to respect private property, to develop a reliable rule of law, and to create political orders in which competing views and interests are peacefully and productively reconciled.