Only in England

28th June 1996 at 01:00
It is only in England, said George Orwell, that intellectuals are ashamed of their own country. The last week has given them good cause, the contribution of the Daily Mirror in particular. Its bafflingly unfunny, coverage of the EnglandGermany football fixture dredged up every cliche in the comic-book dictionary. Nor was the Mirror alone.

In such a competitive atmosphere it seems brave - even rash - of Dr Nicholas Tate, chief executive of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, to call twice in seven days for a stronger sense of national identity, before audiences at the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, and at St Paul's Girls' School in London.

His may be a lonely voice, but Dr Tate makes some pertinent observations. Many of us are ashamed, he says, not just at the antics of the tabloids but of the fact that we are British at all. Sympathetic to other people's cultural traditions, the chattering classes are at the same time disdainful of our own; alarmed at the very idea of a national identity. Amid general insecurity, he suggests, it is little surprise that crude and unsophisticated views of foreigners abound.

Schoolchildren are certainly obsessed with the war, as they demonstrated in a survey earlier this year when Hitler and the Second World War emerged as the dominant images of Germany - the country they would least like to visit. Yet it also appears they have been taught little if anything of Britain's actual role in the war, the most salient of recent historical events. A survey produced at the time of last year's VE day celebrations showed a confusion extending even to the identity of Winston Churchill. One in three 11-14 year-olds did not know who he was, some preferring to describe him as "an American president".

One antidote to tabloid stereotypes is the sort of international dialogue encouraged by the Harry Ree Trust, featured on page 3, TES2. In this respect, British schools are playing their part, arranging an increasing number of sophisticated exchange schemes. It is now recognised that experience of foreign countries and their peoples is an essential part of learning a language. But it may not be sufficient. Dr Tate believes that equally important is a knowledge of, and sense of belonging to, our own community. And this, he says, is conspicuously lacking, inside the classroom and out of it.

Professor Ivor Crewe, from the University of Essex, has produced after three years of research (TES, 7 June) an alarming illustration of what he terms our disengagement from civic life. Four out of five British fifth-formers rarely if ever discuss public issues in the classroom, even those affecting their own locality. Nor, he says, do they discuss them at home.

Some argue that schools are too politically brow-beaten to grapple with anything beyond the most mundane issues. At the same time, Dr Tate is right to identify an enormous reluctance to promote those things that as a society we hold in common and can celebrate. So while the intellectual classes load their cars for Provence, others rest secure in the knowledge that we won the war, and that Fritz is a Kraut.

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