Whither Britain

John wrote a column about England and where it’s going. He’s not sure it’s a happy place.

Where has Britain gone? After almost a week travelling the country, I fear it is sliding into the twilight. How is it losing its identity and why is the country, much like Canada, somehow adrift?

British history is inspiring. I am delighted to be visiting the birthplaces, tombs and monuments of heroes, from Alfred the Great to Stephen Langton, Edward Coke and Horatio Nelson, who helped lay the foundations of liberty under law, defended it in its hour of need, or both. Yet I have a poignant sense, amid these relics of giants, that the British have lost their history and with it their sense of purpose.

Britain is by no means a ruin. It is friendly, prosperous, and mostly courteous, despite pervasively outrageous prices that bring to mind Tony Blair’s “rip-off Britain” jibe. I feel at home here, partly because my personal heritage lies in the British Isles and partly because my cultural and political heritage does. But I also feel, for similar reasons, a familiar sense of disquiet at a culture torn loose from its moorings, a nation with a great future behind it.

Many Britons too are uneasy. Both UKIP on the right and the Scottish National Party on the left reflect a feeling that the centre can’t be bothered trying to hold. And the last Labour Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, famously worried that without a sense of what it meant to be British, the country might crumble.

Familiar feeling, eh? But what could be the elusive common thread of Britishness in a dynamic and open society? Any effort to define, let alone provide, a national identity seems to risk excluding some worthy people. But if you try, as with Canadian multiculturalism, to define an identity as a lack of identity, it has a peculiar capacity to inspire neither enthusiasm nor belief. So allow me to offer the traditional answer: Britain is a land of liberty.

Yes, liberty. In 1649 poet John Milton called London “the mansion-house of liberty.” In the 1760s the great legal commentator William Blackstone called Britain, “A land, perhaps the only one in the universe, in which political or civil liberty is the very end and scope of the constitution.” Land of Hope and Glory calls Britain “mother of the free,” where “Thine equal laws, by Freedom gained,/ Have ruled thee well and long;/ By Freedom gained, by Truth maintained,/ Thine Empire shall be strong.”

If such sentiments seem peculiarly American, it’s because the United States is a mighty child of this mother. And it was this free Britain that became Great Britain, a cultural, economic and military powerhouse whose minimal government didn’t impair citizens’ freedom of contract or association or dare attempt to take away their weapons.

Again, I say yes, weapons. The British Bill of Rights specifically affirms the right to bear arms (regrettably only Protestants at that point). It was freedom that made Britain powerful, admired, respected, hated and imitated. As U.S. president John Quincy Adams reminded Congress in his first State of the Union, “liberty is power.” And it was as freedom ebbed away that Britain’s greatness began to fade.

I should not paint too bleak a picture. When an acquaintance wailed to Adam Smith that Britain was ruined after the defeat at Saratoga, Smith calmly replied, “There’s a great deal of ruin in a nation.” Indeed.

Nearly a decade ago, the BBC did a poll asking what ought to be Britain’s National Day and the winning answer was June 15, the day Magna Carta was sealed. But it is one thing to build a monument, and another to live up to it. On the 200th anniversary of American independence, the United States government was given a magnificent gold replica of Magna Carta by a British government busy smothering liberty in red tape at home while surrendering much effective control over British law to the unelected European Union.

How can it have come to this, and so quickly? I realize Britons were exhausted by two world wars. But I place more blame on 20th-century state promises of security from cradle to grave and “A Land Fit for Heroes.” As Ben Franklin long ago warned would happen, governments since have delivered neither. Britons today are overtaxed, overregulated, under constant surveillance, their heritage largely forgotten and its fruits withered.

In their hearts, Britons still cherish freedom. But to restore it in practice they must summon the same courage reflected in those monuments and epitaphs, and the sense that they are part of a continuing story.

It is also true of Canadians, also children of the “mother of the free.” In the True North Strong and Free we should erect fresh monuments to Alfred, Edward and other giants, to escape the sense of aimless loss that afflicts those who forget their story.

The testing menace

I like this:

Fourteen-year-old Zarria Porter spends her days surrounded by fine works of art. On her way to dance and computer classes, she passes through a sun-drenched lobby showcasing Georgia O’Keeffe’s “Brooklyn Bridge,” Albert Bierstadt’s “In the Mountains,” and—her personal favorite—“Song of the Towers” by Aaron Douglas.

This is Zarria’s middle school. It is modeled after elite private prep schools and filled with high-quality reproductions of famous paintings from around the world. But Zarria is a student in Brownsville, Brooklyn, one of New York City’s poorest and most crime-ridden neighborhoods, and her school is a public charter.

Ascend Learning, a network of seven charter schools in Brooklyn, is going to great lengths to ensure students living in the world’s cultural capital aren’t deprived of art—as so many poor, minority kids in urban America are. Inside renovated buildings that could pass for high-end galleries, students are not only taking art and music classes, but teachers also incorporate art into academic subjects. School operators say this approach—using Pieter Bruegel’s “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus,” for example, to help fifth-graders learn about the myth of Icarus and Daedalus—makes complex literature accessible to struggling readers. And while they carefully monitored student readiness for this month’s high-stakes state exams, they refused to throw out their curriculum in favor of test prep. They point out that many students from neighborhoods like Brownsville get to college and flounder from culture shock. What good is a high score then?

Such conviction is rare in an age when public education has become synonymous with the annual tests whose results can singlehandedly determine the fates of teachers, administrators, and students alike. Amid budget cuts and long hours of drills in reading and math, the arts have been decimated in the many of the classrooms serving the nation’s neediest students. Advocates for arts education are hopeful that the Common Core education standards adopted by more than 40 states will soon change that, as the standards and new exams that go with them emphasize critical thinking and analytical skills, which they say go hand in hand with artistic expression.

The arts have widely acknowledged benefits for education: They help create positive school climates, give kids a reason to show up to class, and inspire creativity—a trait highly valued in the workforce.

The arts most often get short shrift in high-poverty schools under intense pressure to boost academic performance. But the Common Core standards mention the arts frequently: approximately 75 times, according to Sandra Ruppert, who directs the nonprofit Arts Education Partnership. Students are expected to analyze paintings, music, and theater and create their own works of art. “The pendulum might be swinging to the idea that maybe kids actually do need a well-balanced education,” Ruppert said.

Oh, amen. Testing is worse than useless, especially when it is practiced as thoroughly as it is in today’s schools. We are raising people, not machines. We don’t need to test them. We need to give them food for their brains and souls, and let them figure out who they are. That means more stories, more art, more crafts, more music, more play, more fun, more warmth, more sunshine, more love. It’s the only way to make them thrive.

Dare to dream, always

As I sit with a glass of red wine in my temporary London apartment, tired (no, not tired, groggy with fatigue) after six days of traveling and shooting, I take a minute to think about how cool it is to be working for you, the folks who helped us fund our documentary project. In total, there were nearly 1,500 people who funded our film, on Kickstarter and elsewhere (we’re still happy to take contributions, if you’re interested). We are always conscious of who is paying for this trip and why people trusted us with their support and dollars. And we are working very hard to make you proud.

I remember when we started thinking seriously about making this documentary. I told John we should crowdfund it. He was a touch skeptical about it (ahem), but to his credit he agreed to try it. He wasn’t the only one who thought it would be hard to raise $75,000 to make a film about an old piece of sheepskin. But we did raise the money, and now we are running around England filming the pieces that will form the backbone of the documentary (by the way, I’ve posted a bunch of pictures about our progress, here, and will continue to post updates until Saturday). Because normal people, with their $30 and $50 and $100 contributions, wanted us to tell the story of Magna Carta.

It’s kind of amazing, when you think of it.

The job of Christians

I am not a Christian. I was raised among fake Catholics in Quebec and maybe this explains that. But regardless, although I believe in the existence of an overarching good being, I don’t believe Jesus was himself God. Just so you know where I stand.

I am also a very fierce defender of liberty. And yes, liberty includes the right to be an idiot. Although I intensely dislike people who say, loudly, that homosexuality is a sin, I will defend their right to think and say it. Freedom means nothing if we don’t allow it to include things we disapprove of or find repulsive.

In this vein, I am very pleased to read this passage from Michael Coren’s latest column. He is bang-on and I would urge Christians to consider his argument very seriously. It’s not up to non-Christians to make Christians look better in the larger public square. (And yes, the entire argument applies to all other faiths, including atheism, and other topics, too.)

I have written this before and I proudly say it again. The entire debate and conversation around the gay community has to change and the vocabulary has to be soaked in gentleness, grace, Christian love and a pristine sense of empathy. Christianity is not about refusing service, ostracizing and aggressively judging but about witnessing to others the joy and certainty of Christ and salvation.

So, another black eye for the faith when our vision should in reality be crystal clear. We have to get this one right because it will be the prism through which people observe Christianity. Not easy of course but then commitment to Him isn’t supposed to be.

I don’t want my stories to get pneumonia!

Great tips on how to write short stories, but Kurt Vonnegut:

  1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
  2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
  3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  4. Every sentence must do one of two things–reveal character or advance the action.
  5. Start as close to the end as possible.
  6. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them–in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
  7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
  8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.