Paradise can wait for tartan culture;Opinion

21st May 1999 at 01:00
CONSUMPTION OF books is a highly individual thing. You either make a meal of them, or use them for dips. Two in particular fit into the "dip category". Moby Dick is one of them (never had time to complete it). The other is, and for years has been, The Pursuit of the Millennium by Professor Norman Cohn. Now that the real thing is coming up on the horizon, I have been a little more careful to do something other than skim and then express my admiration for both his literary and historical talents.

Cohn in his introduction outlines some characteristics of millenarian sects. Paradise, salvation, fulfilment, call it what you will, is always collective, is here on earth, is just round the corner, encompasses everything and everyone, and is miraculous, meaning achieved by supernatural agencies.

Reading this started the little bells ringing, and brought to mind a curricular initiative that is currently snuggling under a cloak of invisibility. Cohn seems to be describing almost exactly the aspirations - and as far as we non-Net surfers are concerned - the contours of Scots culture that the original review group of the Scottish Consultative Council on the Curriculum wanted to see existing and being taught in Scotland.

If it was true that the tension between the curriculum council and its review group could be reduced to opting either for "Scotland in the curriculum" or for "Scottish culture in the curriculum", I can see why the SCCC dished up the gruel to it. If it went for "Scottish culture in the curriculum" as wholeheartedly as all reports seemed to indicate, the review group starts to resemble a millenarian band leading its followers to paradise.

The paradise is not just expanding the cultural boundaries and horizons of all Scottish children, or even giving them an insight into their cultural background. The group's report, if accepted piecemeal, would have seemed to involve a radical turnabout in the cultural ecology of the curriculum, for "Scotland in the curriculum" has been the norm certainly in history teaching, and in part in geography teaching, for the past 50 years.

The Primary School in Scotland, from 1950, hard-nosed as ever, encouraged teachers to look at the broad picture. Scotland should be presented in the setting of world history, to let the pupil see all human achievement, not just Scottish or British. It offered a list of suitable historical subjects for a P6 class, 20 in all, of which seven were exclusively Scottish. The Primary Memorandum, mystical to the end, offered the patch approach, floating the interesting kite that the interest it aroused would encourage children to read about periods they had not studied in class, but reminding teachers that they would not wish children to leave primary school without some knowledge of Scotland. Nor did they.

In a recent sweep through the local charity shops (a boom industry in my area) I trawled in a copy of Story of Scotland by H W Meikle, published by Oliver and Boyd in 1956, with a preface by P Hume Brown of Edinburgh University. Coming with a Corporation of Glasgow stamp, it gives the lie to anyone who says Scotland in the curriculum is a non-starter. Suffice it to say that the front papers feature a drawing of William Wallace, more grizzled perhaps than Mel and less photogenic, but that's to be expected because no scriptwriter then had dreamed up the whole Braveheart industry and coloured its face blue.

Much more interesting is the comment that accompanies the illustration, entitled "The Spirit of Scotland". "It is a proud thing to belong to a country with so great a story, and to have as our forefathers so many famous men." This is a far cry from the cultural tsunami that wholesale adoption of the review group's recommendations would have started in motion. Scotland is a treasure house of various cultures that we can all dip into, as also can they into ours. Overpowering and overweening Scottishisms would neuter that.

I can understand the natural chagrin that the review group's members must feel. It's the inevitable fate of all earthly paradise seekers. Even the ballot box said so a fortnight ago.

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