With days left until the United Kingdom votes on whether to remain in the European Union, it is incumbent upon educators to promote the debate among their students. Despite the intervention of United States president Barack Obama, the International Monetary Fund, German chancellor Angela Merkel and Indian prime minister Narendra Modi, all of whom are advocating that Britain remain in the EU, the referendum has received surprisingly little coverage in the UAE. Many people still see it as a British issue rather than a global one. This silence is speaking volumes to our students, even if they do not know it yet.
A decision to leave the European Union is more than simply an economic debate on whether the average UK citizen will be richer or poorer – it is a debate about which core values a nation’s citizens should adopt in an increasingly globalised world. The outcome will serve as a resounding manifesto from one of the leading nations of the free world as to how we should interact with one another in the 21st century. How Britons choose to vote will teach children about the priorities of Great Britain. It will teach children what is more important to a 21st century nation and therefore, by default, it will teach students whether what they think and believe is valued by one of the world’s great democracies.
Tolerance and freedom are cornerstones of western civilisation and yet so far the debate has focused far too heavily on economics and immigration. As with residents of the UAE, young Britons live in a truly multicultural society in which a plurality of nationalities and faiths are educated in tandem with one another to the mutual benefit of the students and society. If these groups do not always coexist entirely peacefully or indeed with a full understanding of one another, surely the answer is not to close the door and cease to collaborate. The answer is to learn to work together better and with a greater degree of communication and understanding. For this reason, a decision to leave the EU simply because it will give Britons greater control over immigration is turning the argument into a binary one: that immigrants are good or bad. This absence of critical thinking has the potential to indoctrinate a generation of dogmatic bigots.
If we ever hope to teach our children that certain core values are worth more than money, then we cannot pin the debate exclusively to the economic gamble that Brexit may pose. It may or may not lead to an economic downturn and a fall in property prices in the UK; we do not know. What it will do is teach children that Britain believes closing the door to immigrants until they have a point score which will contribute effectively to GDP means that some human beings are more valuable than others. Is this really the message that Britain wishes to broadcast to the world in an age when intolerance fanned by the flames of fanaticism has the potential to turn whole countries into isolated enclaves who believe they are better off alone?
Boris Johnson, the Eurosceptic who announced his support of Brexit with “resounding éclat” at the beginning of the year, pointed out in his recent biography of Winston Churchill that the European Union is the greatest peace project in history – and that it was Churchill’s brainchild. In his “speech to the academic youth” at the University of Zurich in 1946, Churchill suggested recreating “the European family, or as much of it as we can, and to provide it with a structure under which it can dwell in peace, in safety and in freedom. We must build a kind of United States of Europe. In this way only will hundreds of millions of toilers be able to regain the simple joys and hopes which make life worth living”. It was also Churchill who suggested a European army to protect the continent and provide heft to European diplomacy.
To exit the EU would be to teach students that turning its back on a project that has unified Europe is acceptable on account of Britain’s own individualistic economic needs. We are living at a point in history when the gap between the haves and the have-nots, both as individuals and as countries, is widening.
To leave the EU in order to preserve this inequality is to suggest that the needs of one country are greater than the needs of many after all. It suggests that having taken everything it wanted out of a federation of states, it is now acceptable for the UK to bow out and look after its own.
The question all need to ask is: would we be saying the same thing if we were among the displaced millions who through no fault of their own have been compelled to flee their homeland in search of basic needs for their families?
As parents and teachers, it is our moral duty to raise this topic for debate to allow our youngsters to consider what kind of world they wish to inhabit.
Michael Lambert is headmaster of Dubai College which will be holding its own EU referendum this week