English Literature – and the E.U.

About a decade ago, before it was summarily executed by the exam board, I taught ‘AS’ Level European Studies. I should emphasise that while there was a significant political component, this was not ‘E.U. Studies’ – it also included aspects of culture, history, economics, environment and more. Take-up was always a healthy eight to twelve students, and several went on to take degrees in the subject. I should also say that although I am a strong pro-European, I was scrupulously impartial in my teaching – and also informed students of my personal views from the outset. I sleep easily at nights on that count.

The highlight of the course was a trip to Strasbourg, where we visited the European Parliament and the European Court of Human Rights. We always travelled by train, so that students could gain a better impression of the land and journey involved.

wpeE

(picture taken in 2004 – not current students)

In the interest of balance, I ensured that we were hosted by the E.P.P. (European People’s Party) – in those days, the European ‘home’ of the Conservative Party. This did occasionally make for interesting encounters, as the hosting MEP was subjected to questions about why he was active in an organisation he supposedly didn’t support. As we also pulled in MEP’s from other nations to the debate, it was also engaging to watch members of the same grouping trying hard to present a united front with our Conservative…

One particular moment sticks in the mind: the Finnish MEP (former rally driver) Ari Vatanen made an impassioned exposition referring to the line of photo’s he remembers from his childhood home – all of family members who had died during the War. He said that his motivation for becoming an M.E.P. was to prevent other families having to have such lines of photos. The students were dumbstruck.

Year upon year, exposure (as impartially as possible) to the issues of Europe and the EU worked a significant change on the students. Coming from a profoundly conservative area, many started as strong sceptics, but as they learned more their views moderated, and in some cases underwent significant change.  This, in my view, is the real power of education: not indoctrination, but in fact the opposite: to expose people to knowledge that challenges their prior ignorance. As their knowledge of both the EU and U.K. government increased, students began to make comparisons that had simply not been possible before.

In the recent European elections, euro-sceptic parties made major gains, including in the U.K. In my region, for example, we now have three Conservatives, one Labour and three UKIP MEP’s. The long-serving and much-respected Andrew Duff (LibDem) has been ousted – to be replaced, in effect by a chair that will remain mostly empty. Such is the power of democracy.

The E.U. polling activity Eurobarometer repeatedly reports that the U.K. comes very near the bottom on surveys relating to understanding the workings of the E.U. – and also for the expressed desire to know more. So we might conclude that many people in the U.K. are not only ill-informed, but happy to remain so – and then vote on that basis. Eurobarometer also finds that support for the EU tends to be higher in the more educated parts of society. This is hardly surprising when the British government has repeatedly resisted attempts to inform the population at large. Unlike most nations, there is no national network of EU local information bureaux. If you search for this on the E.U. website, the issue is dodged in the U.K. section, and there is nothing to be found (anywhere) on why this is so – whereas the map below shows what the German section provides: each dot is a local office. Most other member-states have similar. In the U.K., there is one office – in central London.

Eu local info D map

But I am not intending to make a narrowly political point here, despite my concern at these developments.

Coincidentally Michael Gove has advocated an increase in British texts for English Literature students. Out go American works such as To Kill a Mocking Bird and Of Mice and Men – which I suspect have remained popular with teachers as much for their political ideology as anything else, and in (apparently) come more British authors. I cannot inherently see anything wrong with this, especially if it is true that choice will still remain.

This might seem an odd stance for a pro-European. But rather counter-intuitively, I suspect that British xenophobia is actually the product of insecurity about our own historic identity. Having confidence in a European identity need not come at the cost of one’s national sense of self.

Culture is a powerful determinant of national identity – and if people are never able to develop any sense of their own inheritance they will struggle to understand their own place in the world. The rush to embrace ‘global citizenship’ may have gone too far in this respect: we need to start by understanding ‘self’. We also need to appreciate that identities can be ‘nested’: personally, I favour a federal U.K., including devolution for English regions, and I have no difficulty in seeing regional, national and European identities as all part of the same thing. If we do not first have a strong sense of who we are, then perceived incursions of other cultures into our own – in whatever form they come – may well seem much more threatening than they need to.

Ironically, by seeking to support British national identity, Mr. Gove may in the long run be doing internationalists a favour.

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