Brave hearts,but such a closed book

16th August 1996 at 01:00
Man does not strive after happiness, sniffed Nietzsche in his cheerless way, only the Englishman does. He could have added that the Scotsman envies him doing it.

As Euro 96 ground to a halt for the Tartan Army, and the Scotland team found its true level as a bottom feeder in the football food chain, more was at stake than just the dribble of warmed-over woad down woebegone cheeks or a football performance resembling a model-maker left facing two screws and a bolt. Warning bells were ringing for the future of Scottish history teaching within the framework of environmental studies - demonstrably the most herculean of the 5-14 tasks.

Environmental Studies 5-14 is no Athene from a Scottish CCC committee member's forehead. It has a developmental past, starting from The Primary School in Scotland, which suggested that while some history courses concentrated mainly on the story of Scotland, they should be presented in the context of world history. The Primary Memorandum on the other hand, went a bundle on methodology, seeing the discipline as a coat-hanger for the individual learning process, thus laying the foundations of what environmental studies has in mind. The Memorandum airily paused over the question of knowledge gaps, suggesting for example that the word "Stuart" should bring to mind not a date but a clear picture of the spirit of the period.

This thistle has been grasped by Environmental Studies 5-14, which directs that historical studies should cover "studying people, events and societies of significance in the past", "developing an understanding of the nature of historical evidence" and "considering the meaning of heritage". The teaching of Scottish history, previously a Cinderella element within the framework of school history teaching, has been demanded by ES, clearly too within the wider context of world history.

The penetration, however, by the Braveheart Factor of one of its crucial sections, the Middle Ages (400-1450), means in effect that any even-handed approach within this period has been compromised. Braveheart, and the whole ethos it inculcates, replaces commitment to fact with commitment to emotional and nationalistic intensity.

Randall Wallace, Braveheart's scriptwriter, made it clear in the novel of the film what his priorities were: "Life is not all about balance, it's about passion." This may be a good rationale if you want an overlong yarn about a tough kid who won't stay down on the farm and likes to paint himself blue, while being tarted up as some kind of protomartyr of the Enlightenment, and an early leader of the proletarian revolution. It is a better rationale if you are looking for glory Gaels, strictly cardboard cut-out heroes and villains, and a promising love interest. Sadly, for history teaching purposes it's a no-no. Our culture as it stands today, regardless of Braveheart's script, needs balance in abundance, not the Scots equivalent of what Kipling's Stalky called "jelly bellied flag flappers". Or face painters.

What really bothers me about the Braveheart Factor, and other as yet undefined mythologies, is that they burrow like ticks into the national consciousness until they become part of it, to be used as measuring sticks against which contemporary events must be related and compared. A good example was the Scottish Schools international squad song for Euro 96. Entitled, "Bravehearts", its first couplet was "Ask what you can do for Scotland, Not what Scotland can do for you", its last "The Scotland that he (Wallace) fought and died for, Demands your pride and loyalty". The ditty sadly did little for the Scottish team and its lyrics promise less for the future of Scottish history teaching.

Environmental Studies 5-14's earnest contexts and contents seem staid and stilted when held up against mirrors of glamorised and shallow simplifications that interpret culture and history not only one-dimensionally but as part of a series of superpatriotic gestures. Talking about Braveheart, by the way, does anyone remember what happened to the Sheriff of Lanark?

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