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School Britannia

“Remember that you are an Englishman, and have consequently won first prize in the lottery of life”, Cecil Rhodes once said. This epigram seems to epitomise the spirit of our nation, albeit in a very old-fashioned way; we seem to have always had an introspective fascination with England, Englishness and in a wider sense, Britishness. It lies somewhere between lion-hearted pride and starched-collar embarrassment. Similarly, there is something of a tourist-drawing curiosity (bordering on fetishism in some cases) with our national identity to be found in other countries. Now however, it has become an academic discipline of growing popularity in the universities across the world. According to journalist Zoë Corbyn “British studies is flourishing”, with a particularly high concentration in the United States. Those teaching it include the University of Chicago, the University of California and Columbia University, New York to name but a few.

At the University of California, British male ‘banter’ is approached by analysing episodes of Ricky Gervais’ comedy The Office. This seems a little odd to me – what sort of image of English men is this putting across? Is the impression given that all British males communicate via adaptations of the cringe-inducing awkward-fest that is the David Brent dance? Furthermore, the ever-changing, ever-contested notion of class is dealt with using Victorian literature at the University of Columbia, which seems about as appropriate as using a selection of barbeque utensils to perform open-heart surgery. It all seems faintly ridiculous; yet perhaps these are an unfair selection of the subject’s oddest aspects. Teaching academics profess that the subject is a broad examination of British literature, culture, history and politics.

This is pretty much a carbon copy of what we have here in the UK in the shape of American Studies, which has been a discipline at British universities for years. It seems that the US version is just a few years behind. The motive behind American students joining British Studies courses seems to be blatant Anglophilia. There’s a perception that the American view of Britain is that of a twee nation of bowler hats, red telephone boxes and tea; and the fascination of this is what leads to its study. However, ardent British-studiers seem keen to dig deeper than the assumed British stereotype.

Granted, the average American tourist seen in London may declare loudly that he ‘wants a cup o’ that Queen’s tea’ in a hilarious imitation cockney accent, but American students are attracted to the ‘new way’ of studying the British Empire, warts and all. Their view embodies a shift away from the ‘Little England’ idea, according to British Studies co-director Philippa Levine at the University of Texas. Fields of study cover not only historical and political areas of knowledge, but also ones of contemporary pop culture, including British film, music and sporting rituals. As you can see, there is a vast range of juicy British cultural tendencies to choose from.

Now I think there is no problem with British Studies in America; anything that imports some of our excellence (I’m a patriot) over the Atlantic is good, splendid and spiffing. What does rile me is the notion put forward that British Studies as a cultural discipline should make the leap to our very own nation. Levine says, ‘‘I would love British studies to travel to Britain. It would be very healthy’.’

I wouldn’t. As a nation, our culture and national identity is already very much deeply set in its inhabitants, and it would be very ‘un-British’ to turn it into a subject with marks out of 100. Furthermore, Britain shifts culturally, socially and politically like mercury. It is always changing and developing, shot through with British humour that is impossible to codify – and would lose its bite if it was put under the microscope as an all-inclusive ‘study of Britain for the British’. After all, no one in this country should ever, ever sit an exam paper that reads, ‘Fish n’ Chips are superior to Bangers n’ Mash. Discuss’.

William Robertson

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6 Comments on this post.
  • Anon
    11 June 2011 at 09:01
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    The ideology behind Rhodes’s ‘lottery’ was racism and imperialism that led directly to the racist land grabs and murder of countless innocent lives in Africa. His concept of an Englishman had no place for anyone who was not White, after all, he said himself “I prefer land to niggers.” If that is the optiome of ‘the spirit of nation’ then I want no part of it.

    It is this kind of historical revisionism that leans towards the ‘new way’ of studying Empire peddled by the likes of Nail Ferguson, which of course in truth have nothing to do with a ‘warts and all’ study. Although, the ‘old way’ isn’t great in that regard either. Perhaps if it did, we might remember the legacy that individuals like Rhodes left in their wake.

    There are things to be proud about in our culture and history but let us not suly that by associating our national pride to a man who was antithetical to any such concept. As the Independent once wrote: ‘for much of the century since his death, Rhodes has been revered as a national hero. Today, however, he is closer to a national embarrassment, about whom the less said the better.’

  • dan
    11 June 2011 at 16:12
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    Patriotism is the last bastion of a coward – Samuel Johnson.

    Anon is right.

  • Jack
    12 June 2011 at 20:21
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    I would have to agree with Anon as well, but Niall Ferguson’s vision of empire was one of a very positive assessment in it being of benefit for the world as a whole. Ferguson does make some valid points concerning the British Empire’s development of nations, but I would not agree with his viewpoint. I think that perhaps William should have maybe looked at the way we are losing this sense of englishness and patriotism which was so prevalent in the days of Rhodes and co and as Dan has implied this idea of patriotism and nationalism is on the decline and out of favour, particularly with our generation of brits, despite a couple of courses in American universities.

  • anon
    12 June 2011 at 21:28
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    One small quote added for amusement has been taken very far out of context here. Both comments have completely missed the point of the article! British students studying their own culture does seem ridiculous, culture of your own nation should be something you learn from general everyday life and other studies, not something gained by over-analysing literature in lecture theatres.

  • dan
    13 June 2011 at 14:41
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    We already study all this anyway. Its called sociology.

  • anono1
    17 June 2011 at 18:52
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    Cecil Rhodes has grown to be regarded as the epitome of colonial racism. This much is correct. He has been vilified as a model of how not to behave. Also correct. But let us not forget that he was the product of a time when attitudes toward colonialism and empire were very different. Churchill was deeply and openly hostile to Gandhi but we do not discard his every word as indicative of a racist inclination. Far better to accept that empire had its positive and negative points. For the better part of the nineteenth century, British imperialists ravaged the natural resources and people of poorer and weaker countries which is certainly a stain on our past. However, let us not forget that transportation, democracy, a sense of commonwealth and other great achievements were propagated by empire. It may be argued that these peoples would have found these things themselves but I for one will not throw away the successes to erase the failures. Our sense of British pride must be reclaimed from a thuggish fascism and from the sense that if one is proud of their country they are old-fashioned. Britain’s is, unlike almost every other country on earth, a history in which it is more frequently the oppressor than the oppressed. Teaching ourselves a balance of pride and remorse is the only way we can foster a mature patriotism under which we accept that cecil rhodes was wrong, but redeem, as this article does, his quote for a more noble purpose. Otherwise we simply end up being ashamed of our national identity and lose it forever.

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