National Education: UK vs USA

18 Sep

Sharon Takao’s recent post on National Education: China vs Japan struck an unexpected chord with me. My thoughts on multi-culturalism and how to balance different national perspectives tend to focus on our life in Asia and the experience of being Westerners immersed, to varying degrees, in Chinese culture and society. But Sharon’s post reminded me of the subtler multi-culturalism within my own family. I am British and my husband Ethan is American and although we share a language and broad cultural background, the phrase “divided by a common language” can sometimes seem uncomfortably accurate.

Sharon’s story reminded me of one day earlier this summer, when I was making dinner and listening to my husband talking to our two sons about family history.  Ethan is a direct descendent of Paul Revere, hero of the American War of Independence, famous for his midnight ride to Lexington and Concord to warn patriots that “the British are coming.” You can probably guess where this is heading. Paul Revere is our son’s 7 times great-grandfather so it’s right that they should know his story and feel proud of his accomplishments. But as I listened to Ethan’s stories about the brave, clever American patriots outsmarting stupid, bullying “lobsterbacks” so they could gain freedom from the injustice of British rule, I couldn’t help feeling uncomfortable. I understood that he was telling them simplified stories they could relate to, but I also didn’t want them growing up believing only one side of a complex story.  So I spoke up and pointed out that the country was divided at the time, with many Americans still considering themselves to be British subjects, that many had in fact been born in Britain, and that the story was not a simple one of good guys and bad guys. It was not as if the Americans were fighting for independence from a colonial power who had come in and occupied their country. They themselves had been part of the occupying force who had taken the country from its native inhabitants, then as they settled down decided they no longer wanted to pay taxes to the home country.

Maybe that’s another gross over-simplification, but it comes down to what Sharon pointed out, that each country teaches its own version of history, casting its own actions in the most positive light. And if you are married to someone who grew up with a different version of history than your own, you need to find some accommodation between the two. In fact the American War of Independence does not play a major role in history as taught in British schools. It is one in a series of narratives of countries colonised and lost, of Empire created and dissolved. In seven years of secondary school history courses, the only time I can remember it mentioned is as a contributory factor to the French revolution! By contract, in America it is of course a compulsory part of every child’s education and an important source of beliefs and discourses about what the nation stands for and represents.

The first time the subjectivity of history really came home to me I was already 20 (which means I had lived that long more or less accepting what I had learned in school), when the Battle of Agincourt came up in conversation with a French friend and we realised he had never heard of it. What is taught in British schools as a glorious victory is quietly ignored in France. Fortunately passing centuries take the sting out of defeat and the further away these events are, the more they become of purely academic interest. On the day in question I realised that 200 plus years aren’t quite enough to erase national loyalties within my family. Hearing my concerned tone as I tried to bring another perspective to his history lesson, Ethan did modify his story, somewhat, and acknowledge the uncertainties and divided loyalties of that period of history. We laughed about it later and I said it was a good thing I wasn’t German or Japanese, from a country that America has fought a war with in living memory, or Iraqi for that matter!

Chinese-Japanese marriages must contain similar tensions, not to mention Anglo-French ones, with centuries of conflict to draw on. Sometimes the tensions are greatest closest to home: Anglo-Scottish and Anglo-Irish marriages must have plenty of fodder for diverging perspectives. I would be interested to hear other’s thoughts and experiences on this subject, it may be that I am over-sensitive. Maybe some people are good at rising above their own versions of history, allowing their children to absorb one side of the story only, but I have realised that within my family we need to find room for both sides, or at least the acknowledgement that history is complex and multi-faceted.

About me: originally from the UK, I first came to China as a student in the 1980s and my life has intersected with China one way and another ever since. For the past 8 years I have been based in Chengdu, Sichuan Province China with my American husband and our two sons aged 6 and 11. I work freelance for non-profit organisations and on my own writing, editing and translation projects.

6 Responses to “National Education: UK vs USA”

  1. Sharon Takao September 18, 2012 at 3:11 pm #

    Would like to click the LIKE button. 🙂
    We were planning a family trip in Nov and I stupidly suggested the Great Wall. My husband asked if I wanted our kid to lose his father. lol
    Coming back to the topic. I suppose what is important is that our kids understand that whether the historical stories are true or false, we should be nice to other people, wherever they are from. That’s what history is for (at least to me) – to learn not to make the same mistakes. PEACE~~

  2. renu86 September 18, 2012 at 3:47 pm #

    Very intriguing take on history indeed.Amazing what decisions we as parents have to take as we raise our children in this very rich multicultural world. The beauty of history in my opinion at least is that it can be very objective.We can narrate facts like they happened and leave our kids to base their opinions or not when they grow up. Having said that my husband and I come from very similar historical backgrounds but Indians, both Hindus,both from the same part of India:South but hold entirely different opinions about one very sore subject in most Indian homes;Pakistan. Speaking very objectively again; this vast differences in opinions came from how our respective parents chose to address the issue at our homes.
    My kids are of course very young (4 and 1) to be discussing history with us now but when I do I like you will be very tempted to voice my concerns.Thanks to your piece it has opened my mind. And totally agree with Sharon it all comes down to peace.

  3. jmlindy422 September 18, 2012 at 9:11 pm #

    I am American. My mother was from the American South. My father is from New York. I was raised in the Midwest. I recall learning about Sherman’s glorious and victorious march to the sea, telling my mother and her hitting the roof. Sherman’s march, she pointed out, left murdered women and children and scorched earth in its wake. Not so glorious.

    I’m not sure I agree that history is objective. History is, at it’s root, story and therefore, in the telling, has a point of view. You can try to be as objective as possible and relate the various sides of the story, but we are beholden to whoever recorded the details. Most often, those are recorded by the victors.

    BTW, I think the Colonists’ problem with taxes wasn’t so much paying them at all, but paying them without representation. I don’t mean to nit pick, but Americans yap all the time about the founders not wanting to pay taxes to justify not raising taxes. The Colonial cry was, “No Taxation without Representation.”

    • catplatt September 18, 2012 at 10:02 pm #

      Yes, good point about taxation, I did say my knowledge of the period is very sketchy! I agree that history is not objective, but always has a point of view. Some of the most enjoyable history I have read is in the form of first hand accounts eg the People’s History series of books based on dairy entries by the writers of the Mass Observation Project during WWII in Britain. These relate experience directly rather than trying to interpret what happened or present it as a coherent narrative. Of course they also have a point of view, but you can draw your own conclusions.

      • jmlindy422 September 18, 2012 at 10:53 pm #

        There is a movement in Social Science education in the US to teach from original documents, such as the diary entries you describe. It’s so much more “alive” that way and much easier for children to relate to and, hence, draw their own conclusions, which is the point.

  4. sadia April 28, 2013 at 2:37 am #

    My ex-husband is American and I am British, with some Bangladeshi thrown in for good measure. I haven’t felt the same degree of tension, perhaps because Bangladesh is so much more different from the US than Britain that the UK felt like the common link.

    I do joke about “taxation without representation,” though. As a permanent resident of the US, I’ve paid my taxes for 15 years, but don’t have the right to vote.

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