Saturday, 2 February 2008

No (hi)story, no identity

It was at Ayer's Rock/Uluru in Australia that I realized why history matters to every school child - your story defines who you are. Forget all the guff about 'British values', being British (or Australian, or Polish) means seeing yourself as part of this story, of this place and this nation - the social unit between family and neighbourhood, on the one hand, and global community on the other.

For that exercise, history is essential, not as a matter of 'names and dates', much less as an exercise in understanding the causes of world events, but as an ongoing narrative, which began before you were born and will continue after you are gone. You don't even have to approve of it - you just have to know it is yours. Our old school song, most of which I can still remember by heart, was designed to instil just that sense of identity in young boys:

"Here's to old John Roan [the school founder], Who lived and worked and died, In the mighty days of Cromwell, of Milton and of Blake ..."

Even the fact that the word 'old' in the opening line is a term of approval speaks volumes.

It is the lack of that shared story which undergirds the problems Michael Nazir-Ali has addressed, about identity and 'no-go' areas. Contrast the 'home-grown' terrorist problem of Great Britain with the lack of that problem in other nations of the English-speaking world, then take a look at the number of buildings which fly our national flag compared with, say, those in Australia. Then check your own reactions to the suggestion that this is a problem. Do you feel a slight sense of unease? Do your thoughts go to the BNP and the desire not to 'frighten' people with 'nationalist' symbols? Now you know why we have a problem in the first place.

In the light of this, I was interested in an article from the Daily Telegraph concerning a report on teaching patriotism, not because I think patriotism can be taught, but because of what was said about the value of loving one's country:

In a report drawn up by the Institute of Education, teachers in London's secondary schools (well, 47 of them) expressed their views about lessons in patriotism, and utterly predictable they were, too. "Waste of time," was the consensus.

Lessons in patriotism might indeed be a waste of time because patriotism, which can be defined as a sense of place, is something that is best absorbed, not taught. But some of the reasons advanced in the report were odd.

"Praising patriotism excludes non-British pupils," said one teacher, expertly missing the point that the majority of pupils in British schools are British subjects. Their parents might have come from Bangladesh, Somalia or Lithuania, but they live here by choice, and so the only thing that binds children from these different backgrounds is the English language. An understanding of the history and customs of the only country they can call home is not just desirable. For social harmony, it is essential.

Other teachers dragged in that old hobby-horse, empire, and there was even talk of "BNP-type thinking". Surely even the most self-hating liberals can now see that, by suppressing the urge to know more about one's country, and encouraging children to feel ashamed of British history, their reflexive guilt plays into the hands of parties such as the BNP.

The report builds up to an overwhelming question, posed by its author, one Michael Hand: "Are countries really appropriate objects of love?" He answers it himself. "Since all national histories are at best morally ambiguous, it's an open question whether citizens should love their countries." Read more

That high-pitched whirring noise is old John Road spinning in his grave.

Revd John P Richardson
2 February 2008

No comments will be posted without a full name and location, see the policy.


  1. Pridespurge, in something of a triumph of hope over experience I read your last comment, in case you had something worthwhile to say and had followed the comments policy about name and location. Unfortunately, even if you'd complied with the latter, I couldn't have published what you wrote as most people would have taken exception to your use of the 'n' word. If you can avoid that language and comply with the policy I'll publish the comment.

  2. that's a weasel little coment, imlpying that i said 'nigger' in any way other than as a sarcastic comment on your poisonous, racist blog.

  3. Pridespurge, please do not attempt to post any more comments. They will not be read.

  4. i agree with pridespurge. this is a squalid little article, which hides behind patriotism but reeks of racism. it's alwaye people who talk about self-hating liberals who are the first to persecute outsiders.

    poppy tupper.