US President Donald Trump has just signed an Executive Order establishing a national commission – ‘The 1776 Commission’ - to explore “patriotic” and “pro-America” education that will celebrate American history.
This reminds me of the regular and often contentious discussions I have with teacher-trainees about so-called ‘fundamental British values’ and how some people are extremely sensitive to any references to national values and ‘patriotism’ let alone ‘nationalism’.
Perhaps as a nation and even as a teaching profession, we are generally uncomfortable talking about anything ‘British’ and especially something like ‘British values’. In my experience, people in many, if not most, other countries (including teachers) are entirely unselfconscious about discussing and celebrating what they perceive as their ‘national values’.
I’ve never heard an American for example; question the practice of their schoolchildren starting each day reciting the Pledge of Allegiance – as they do. I know that in France, every school child knows that the fundamental values of the French Republic are Liberte, Egalite and Fraternite and the revolutionary history that brought them about. Try asking the average British teenager what the Magna Carta is or the significance of The 1689 Bill of Rights and you’re likely to get blank stares.
We are much more circumspect and suspicious about displays of national values, especially if there is the slightest whiff of nationalism about them. If the Department for Education were to suggest British teachers began the day singing the National Anthem or pledging allegiance to The Crown, I think British teachers might start a revolution of their own (even if they were pro-monarchist and patriotic). Doing something like that is just not British!
Of course, the ‘fundamental British values’ referred to in the Teachers’ Standards are of a completely different order to singing ‘God Save the Queen’ in assembly every morning or believing in clichés about British identity (like adopting a stiff upper lip, cheering for the underdog, starting every conversation with the weather or the propensity to queue).
Obviously, attempting to make a definitive list of stereotypical customs or behaviours that people should identify with or adopt as ‘British’ would be absurd. To suggest for example, that one has to be a supporter of the monarchy to demonstrate patriotism or to think that queuing is a uniquely British phenomenon – is to demonstrate ignorance, not patriotism.
Nor are these examples or illustrations of the ‘fundamental British values’ under discussion in the Teachers’ Standards. While you may take issue with the word ‘British’ they raise issues about the values that are fundamental to protecting rights, freedoms and the flourishing of human existence – democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, mutual respect and tolerance for people with different faiths and beliefs.
For a teacher, these are not a tangential concern but a fundamentally ethical matter.
I don’t know what Donald Trump’s definition of patriotism is but George Orwell, the genius who authored some of the most important books written in English in the 20th century, described patriotism “as a devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one might believe to be the best in the world but has no wish to force upon other people.” I have no argument with that. Do you?
Should teachers be patriotic?
Watch this sample of the video-module 'Can you teach British values? Yes, and here's how...' and subscribe to the newteacherstalk website to continue the discussion.
Alan Newland worked as a teacher, teacher-trainer and headteacher in London for over 20 years and then for over a decade with the DfE and the GTC. He now lectures on ethics and professionalism in teaching and runs the award-winning social media network newteacherstalk. You can also follow him on Twitter at @newteacherstalk