I should have known better. Attempting to discuss the significance of Baroness Thatcher to a school assembly of 11 to 18 years olds born between 1995 and 2002 was always going to be difficult. Mrs Thatcher falls into the ‘ignorance gap’ between history and current affairs that isn’t covered in the school curriculum. Learning about the Tudors in history means that many of today’s pupils know more about the 1580s than the 1980s, and could be forgiven for assuming that the General Belgrano was a part of the Spanish Armada.
My attempts to set the 1980s scene fell on stony ground. Nationalised industries, widespread strikes, hyper-inflation, coal mines, IRA bomb blasts, the Iron Curtain, limited television schedules, and Mini Metros mean little to today’s children. It is not just that the 1980s are not taught in schools; it is that the world has moved on and the Thatcher past really is a foreign country where they do things differently. Perhaps this shows the extent of Mrs Thatcher’s legacy and that she really did change Britain; or perhaps Britain was changing anyway.
Whilst the ignorance gap between history and current affairs can be frustrating, it also serves an important intellectual purpose. It creates time for perspective to develop, for emotions to calm, and for people to think with their heads rather than their hearts. Much of the recent commentary on the Thatcher legacy has been too prone to hyperbole as old opponents have used the occasion of her death to lock political horns once again.
Mrs Thatcher was a ‘marmite’ politician who stirred up strong emotions both for and against. These passions get in the way of reasoned and objective analysis. It is too soon to judge the Thatcher legacy, but some of those best placed to judge it will be the school children of today. They carry no Thatcher baggage, and when the conveyor belt of time moves the 1980s from the ignorance gap into curriculum history, sensible reasoned and objective analysis will be written.
In the meantime, I hope the class of 2013 will learn one enduring lesson from Mrs Thatcher’s example. Putting politics to one side, the rise of a young Margaret Roberts from a grocery shop in Grantham to the Cabinet Room in Number 10 Downing Street is a lesson in the importance of hard work and determination. By all accounts Mrs Thatcher was a talented but not exceptional student. She was, however, not frightened of hard work and famously survived on just four hours of sleep a night. Exceptionally thorough preparation meant that Mrs Thatcher was very well briefed – often with a fuller grasp of the facts than her own ministers and opposition.
Mrs Thatcher is an extreme example of human effort and industry. Working 20 hours a day, 7 days a week, for 11 and a half years is not typically a recipe for success or human happiness. But in education and employment there is definitely a correlation between effort and achievement. The correlation may be distorted by luck, but for most of us what we get out of life broadly equates to what we put in. This is the essential message in Matthew Syed’s book Bounce, which is subtitled, ‘The myth of talent and the power of practice’. It is also why in schools high grades for achievement so often correlate with high grades for effort.