Does flagging pride need waving flags?

Hilary Wilce

If I'd read Nick Tate's views on children needing a sense of national identity before I took my own children to live abroad, I know I'd have dismissed them with a scornful roll of my politically correct eyeballs. I mean, flag-waving? Banging the drum for good old England? Please. Who needs any of that.

Now I think he's exactly right, and I speak as the mother of three children with an intensely developed sense of national identity - only trouble is, it's the wrong nation.

Five years in US schools has left them thinking of themselves as Americans. And not in any subtle, subconscious way, either. Ask them about it and they'll say something like: well I guess I'm really supposed to be British, but like, basically, I feel like I'm totally American (their language having gone the same way as everything else).

Ah yes, says everyone, well it's not surprising, is it? All those flags in the classroom and having to recite the Pledge of Allegiance every morning? They must have had it rammed down their throats at every turn.

But that isn't it. Those signs and symbols of nationhood (introduced into American schools quite specifically to mould a ragbag of disparate immigrants into a coherent new country) had about as much effect on them as the daily gabbled prayer at my own school's morning assembly had on turning a bunch of giggling schoolgirls into models of Christian piety.

Far more important was the curriculum content. When American pupils study history, they study American history, with only the occasional detour into Ancient Egypt or 19th century Europe. When they study geography, it's American deserts and prairies and river basins that come under the spotlight. In music they sing American folk songs, and in science the wonders of the American space programme are on every pupil's lips.

Of course, there are plenty of attempts at multiculturalism. Pupils learn about Hannakah and Diwali, and do Polish folk dances, and study Chinese calligraphy, but these scarcely dent the great, grounded edifice which is the US-centred school curriculum and which turns out pupils who are often staggeringly ignorant of global affairs (I once had to explain to a junior high class that yes, amazing as it seemed, there were countries in the world that had their own money, and didn't use US dollars and cents), but completely certain of the greatness of the US of A.

But what happens in school is only a part of it. America sees itself as a fine nation, founded on principles of freedom and personal dignity, which - despite dark patches - continues to stand for something noble and good. Flags are flown without cynicism, the national anthem is sung with pride, and national celebrations, such as Thanksgiving and Memorial Day, are celebrated from the heart because everyone still - truly, madly, deeply - loves the country they live in.

And children, who are both profoundly moral and profoundly sentimental creatures, drink it all in. They live in the home of the brave, land of the free! Their ancestors fought for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness! Freedom and justice for all! Who could quarrel with any of that?

In contrast, our own sense of nationhood has become fossilised in crusty institutions quite remote from ordinary people's lives. What child's heart could really swell at the opening of Parliament, or lift at the thought of being long reigned over by a glorious Queen? Our celebrations are about pomp and circumstance. They belong to tourists, not us - and what, exactly, are we celebrating anyway?

We haven't a clue. Quite recently Britain ruled the waves, but we don't like to dwell on that now, any more than we want to take a long hard look at our inevitable future as a tiny peripheral cog in the new global economic machine.

So to ask schools to pass on to their pupils a sense of who they are and where they're coming from, when society itself doesn't know any more, is to expect nothing short of a miracle.

Yet I think Nick Tate is right. Children do need a strong sense of the country they grow up in. No one emerges from childhood as a fully-fledged world citizen. Children explore slowly outward - from the family, through the neighbourhood local community, into their own country and then the world. A child that knows and understands each of these levels, and how they link to each other, is far more likely to have the self-confidence and security needed to function well and openly than one that doesn't. A child that can find something to be proud of in all of these, will have an added bonus.

I was recently taken around one of the most dismal parts of inner London by a 14-year-old who has lived there all his life. Where I saw grime and hopelessness, he was busy pointing out murals and roof gardens. He knew how funds had been raised for the new youth club premises, and which year they installed the adventure playground in the square, just as he also knew which drug-dealing corners to avoid, and where he would never walk alone at night. It was his world, very flawed and not always comfortable, but known by him, understood; and offered up to a visitor with real pride.

National identity is not blind nationalism. Knowledge is not cultural imperialism. One identity does not have to exclude others, and conflicts do not have to be swept away under the carpet. No flags need ever be waved, but if children are growing up British we do them a disservice if we evade answering the question of what that means.

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