Thatcher as a teachable moment

As you’ll have noticed, Margaret Thatcher died yesterday. Rather than add to the mountain of comment on her legacy/’meaning’/etc. I want to talk instead about how her death is a classic example of a teachable moment.

Over the past 24 hours, I have found only one person without a view of Thatcher – and they were 8 years old, so can probably be excused. As a political figure, Thatcher engaged a very wide range of people and the full spectrum of views, from adoration and veneration through to hatred and apoplexy. Even those too young to have a personal memory of her still noticed the news.

In short, this represents an opportunity to access people’s’ feelings and understandings of politics, beyond Thatcher.

As I’ve argued on the narrower basis of EU policy yesterday, a political figure of the stature of Thatcher becomes first abstracted and then claimed by others in support of their claims and objectives.

Thus to read the coverage is to find out as much (in fact, probably more) about the writer/speaker than it is to find out about Thatcher herself. This contestation of her meaning has been there for a long time, but the occasion of her death offers a much more visible expression of this.

Despite having written several pieces over the years about Thatcher and her European policy I am as guilty of this as anyone else: I can recognise that my worldview of pragmatism is reflected in my approach to her actions.

As a teachable moment, this is the time were we could engage with students about both the coverage and their personal views, to build a deeper understanding of both these things. Unfortunately, we also have to recognise that it is a moment, and that the visceral edge will dull quickly.  However, it does also make us think about how other such moments can appear and be used: there might not be many individuals like Thatcher, but if we can be both alert to possibilities (i.e. not just deaths, but other critical junctures) and agile in our teaching, then we might be able to offer something very rich and engaging to our students.