Be Scottish and get beyond the cringe

7th October 2005 at 01:00
Studying ourselves need not mean excluding the study of others, says Michael Russell.

Raise the issue of studying Scottish literature or Scottish history in schools, and you can be sure that it will be attacked as being "narrow" and "nationalistic".

I plead guilty to being a nationalist, but I hope that not even my worst enemies would call me "narrow". Nonetheless, the argument does at present seem to have been captured by those who feel that the mere mention of doing something with Scotland at its centre is suspect.

Consequently, I was cheered when attending a consultation on the Cultural Commission report, organised by the Green MSP Chris Ballance last month, to hear a presentation by Donald Smith, who runs the Scottish Storytelling Centre.

Speaking on behalf of the Society of Authors, he called for a complete "Scottish-centred" curriculum in schools, with particular reference to the use of Scottish books. He described this proposal as being a "low-cost" option for radical cultural change and he coupled it with a plea for designated spending by libraries on Scottish publishing and the establishment of a "Literature Scotland" forum to promote Scottish writing.

Most arts organisations, wherever their members or leaders stand in the political spectrum, would now agree with Mr Smith that an emphasis on matters Scottish within education would greatly benefit not only Scottish creative artists and Scottish culture but also our children.

Indeed at the same event, the composer and traditional musician Eddie MacGuire spoke passionately about the need for artists to be involved in education, and for that education to be not simply a "taster" experience, as the Scottish Executive seems to want to provide, but one which transferred real skills while encouraging excellence.

Many teachers, of course, do bring Scotland into the classroom. Gone are the days when the only Scottish authors studied or even heard about were Scott and Burns, and when historical study sloped over the border with the retreating Romans and stayed there. Environmental studies, geography, modern studies and a host of other subjects have brought more and more focus to bear on Scotland and where pupils actually are, and that has helped make Scottish children more aware of their origins and their potential.

But much remains still to do, particularly by government, which is deeply schizophrenic about the matter. Not only is there a political fear that such a move could open the floodgates to nationalism, but there is also a deeply ingrained terror that to look at ourselves means never to be encouraged to look at others. Something akin to the old attitude to Gaelic - that children should leave it behind as it could be of no use in a non-Gaelic world - seems still to pervade the Scottish educational establishment.

Yet no one could criticise the economic growth of modern Ireland even though that country's education system has been, since the days of Patrick Pearse, rooted in Ireland itself. The fact that, in today's Ireland, there is more interest in learning modern languages, more co-operative business and commerce across Europe, as well as a more vibrant cultural community, would suggest that the system has not created a society that is insular and inward-looking but has instead encouraged a confident engagement with the world.

The reason for that is very simple. Children who are taught, from the earliest years, something about themselves and who they are, who are taught about their families, their background and their localities, develop a set of skills which are invaluable. They do not need to constantly question themselves, nor do they need to accept the automatic primacy of others seemingly more worldly-wise. They are, to put it simply, rooted in reality and can get on with building on firm foundations.

We would not dream of invalidating those children's experiences and interests by rudely belittling their importance. Yet, that is what we often do when we teach about Scotland. We still suffer, no matter how little we recognise it, from the Scottish cringe, and eliminating that cringe can only be done by demonstrating to each generation the richness of the society and country around them.

That is not a narrow activity. No one is suggesting a "here's tae us, wha's like us?" approach, which is mere chauvinism. Scotland has many faults, its past has many mistakes within it, and not all of its products are worth celebrating. But that is as true of the UK as whole, as it is of our bit of it. So if we start with where we are and develop our knowledge out from there, we will be able to absorb and understand more of other places, too.

The Society of Authors is also right about this being a "low-cost" option.

Using more Scottish textbooks (and encouraging them to be written where they don't exist) and altering the curriculum where necessary to inject Scottish and local material will be more cost-effective both now and in the long run. It will produce jobs (remember that there is not a single Scottish educational book wholesaler left), sustain Scottish writers and educationists, and build further links between schools and their communities.

It will also enrich every young person's cultural understanding, which remains an aim of government no matter how confused it is about the means of achieving it.

In addition, it will ultimately produce better Scottish citizens: seeing Scotland as a small European nation, in a variety of partnerships with others, would be the best way to encourage multiculturalism.

Lenin observed that "the basis of internationalism is nationalism", and it is hard to be enthusiastic about elsewhere or about other people if we do not first of all know the place where we started from and the people who live there. It is equally hard to be enthusiastic about such things if what we have learned of them from our earliest years is wholly inadequate.

Michael Russell is a writer and commentator.

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