The man in search of an identity

28th July 1995 at 01:00
What does being English mean? Diane Hofkins talks to Nick Tate about his controversial beliefs, while Anne Corbett reveals how the French stay French.

The Irish nationalist, Anglo-Irish poet William Butler Yeats is in the national curriculum for English, and students are likely to study these lines: "Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world."

Nick Tate, chief executive of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, wants the centre to hold. He believes that in a time of rapid social change, economic globalism and family breakdown, schools can help give pupils a sense of meaning by fostering a national cultural identity.

"What I am saying is that the centre should hold and if the centre didn't hold . . . the notion of national identity would wither away, given all those pressures and the atomisation of modern life."

In a speech earlier this month, Dr Tate pointed to the Curriculum Cymreig in Wales, which promotes Welshness in all subjects, and to France, where "the prime purpose of the curriculum is to provide all French children with a common entitlement to a French identity".

But, he said, when the question is raised of how the curriculum develops a sense of English identity, the response is "usually embarrassed silence, ill-focused hostility or a kind of cosmopolitan disdain".

Dr Tate says he wants to promote debate and it is one that raises issues which are plaguing many nations in the modern world. How are societies which are increasingly culturally diverse to be held together? What gives them a sense of community? Is it better to be simply citizens of the world? And these questions lead to bigger ones, well beyond Dr Tate's remit as curriculum chief. If young people are to develop a sense of national identity, and feel they have a stake in society, what can Britain offer them in return? What sort of jobs and future can they see for themselves?

Dr Tate is well aware of the complexity of the debate, but some see him as nostalgic or naive. He believes that heritage is important, and that a nation with confidence in its own will appreciate other peoples'. But critics have pointed to Bosnia, or Germany in the 1930s as places where this has not been the case. Dr Tate sees a distinction between national identity and nationalism: the latter being more associated with the National Front and conflict in former Yugoslavia.

He cannot see why having a sense of identity should make people hostile to members of other groups. He says, approvingly, that many ethnic minority Britons see themselves as having two identities but argues against schools offering a "watered down multi-culturalism from which all the component cultures . . . lose out." When it comes to culture, vive la difference, is his view.

Dr Tate argues that parents from minority groups want the mainstream curriculum, which includes the impact of Christianity on the country's values and key English texts, but also to have their home culture valued. This is done through the national curriculum and RE.

"The point about the centre having to hold is that there's a fairly clear majority culture which is distinguished by the fact that its roots are European, Christian, classical... going back centuries," he says. Handing this on is an important part of education, and could give teachers a greater sense of purpose in their lessons.

Modern writers like Derek Walcott and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala are contributing to and taking forward a great literary tradition which children should be introduced to..

History, he feels, is more than "transferable skills"; it can help children understand who they are, and that they are part of a community going back over centuries.

But this culture just cannot be handed down like the family silver, solid and unchanging. Rooted in the past it gains layers as it moves into the future.

The Empire and its legacy should not be swept under the carpet: "It is important to understand why we are a more culturally diverse society, and how the different cultures have impacted upon each other."

Britain as a political entity coincides with the time of Empire and while ethnic minorities may see themselves as Asian and British or West Indian and British, Englishness is more tricky. Can a Pakistani be English? "I would hope the English people's sense of Englishness is inclusive enough to include people who have committed themselves to this country." He says Englishness has changed over the centuries, for instance taking in Jews and Huguenots. "There is no reason why it shouldn't change in the future."

He concedes that this is not straightforward, but says: "I don't think because of that we should put aside 900 years of cultural identity. The challenge - I suppose for society - is to develop a more inclusive idea of cultural identity. "

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