Englishness should not be a dirty word

10th October 2003 at 01:00
One of the geography teachers at my school has just published a book that reflects on the notion of a frontier and the part it plays in our lives.

It is good to see that the long tradition of the teacher-scholar is alive and well. His book traces the frontier between Geneva and France, maps its boundary stones and explores what they tell us about the history of this frontier and its effect on people's lives.

Geneva is a place where the frontier is all-important, being a curious enclave surrounded by France. Most of the time one crosses the border, past abandoned customs posts, without noticing it. But one is well-advised not to take it too lightly. The other day, on my weekly visit to our local French supermarket, where prices are lower, I was questioned at length by a stern frontier guard. It was the day of the UN Security Council meeting in Geneva and the fact that I did not have my residence permit with me, and that my passport photo bears no resemblance to how I now look, obviously aroused suspicion.

In education the frontier remains hugely significant. Harmonisation and globalisation may be blurring national differences but education systems continue to be highly distinctive. This is as it should be. One of their roles is to help shape a sense of identity and transmit a cultural heritage. In the village school near my house they learn about William Tell and Calvin; over the hill in France, two kilometres away, they learn about the Gauls and Joan of Arc.

Ideas of frontier and identity are particularly important in an international school. This school has ten principles for an international education. One is to promote understanding of global issues and teach international values. Another is to learn about the host country and be integrated with it. The two complement each other. With over 100 nationalities, the school is a microcosm of a world in which frontiers are becoming less significant but in which the search for some kind of identity remains as strong as ever. Back in the mid-1990s, when debates about the English national curriculum were raging, I was much criticised for my view that a key purpose of a curriculum was to help the young develop a sense of national identity. What critics failed to recognise was that identities are multiple: having a strong sense of English or British identity is in no way incompatible with being European or a citizen of the world. It is no longer enough just to be a member of a nation state. What that led to in the last century is firmly ingrained in the consciousness of my generation and there are still many examples of its pernicious effects today.

But having a cosmopolitan disdain for people rooted in a place and proud of their traditions can be just as harmful. The US social critic Christopher Lasch, writing in the 1980s, predicted a new global elite that would take more decisions affecting us but have no sense of their impact on particular places because it had no attachment to any place. His fears are being realised and it is a challenge facing schools suchas my own, which are a seed bed for this global elite, to combat this trend.

For most of the time I am optimistic. When I talk to former pupils, two memories of school stand out. One is the way they celebrated the Escalade, an event in 1602 when the Genevois drove out the forces of the Duke of Savoy. Former pupils, though scattered to all corners of the globe, still gather on December 11 to mark this event with the traditional consumption of Swiss fondue. This, I am told, is an acquired taste.

The other memory is of the summer kermesse, the annual fair and highlight of the school calendar. On this occasion the different national groups at the school put up brightly decorated stands and offer everyone their distinctive food and drinks. Lebanese, US, Israeli and Iranian stands are all there cheek by jowl.

Memories like these are a powerful symbol of unity in diversity. They are a more enduring educational legacy than much of what happens in the formal curriculum. It is this kind of legacy that one hopes educators all over the world are aiming for in these troubled early years of the new millennium.

Nicholas Tate is director-general of the International School of Geneva

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