Citizenship

This is a problematic term, but as I’m going to a seminar tomorrow on the whole citizenship agenda, I thought I would get my thoughts together on this issue.

First up: what is it, exactly? In the main it is a legal status: certainly the only time I am ever described as a citizen is on my passport, and I would describe myself as such if I were ever pushed to do so. And in my case, being a native Briton, born and raised here with no complications, it’s fairly straightforward. I have a paper trail going back to my birth in a Swindon hospital, and beyond that to at least three generations. My name is as about as WASPy as they come and my ethnicity very clear.

Reading that back, clearly my own concept of citizenship has a link with ethnicity and ancestry, which I can place partly on my own interest in history and in particular dark age history, but there are issues with this aspect of what it means to be a citizen. The whole “Anglo Saxon” myth is both confusing and confused: quite apart from the fatal flaw in the the whole “send em back to where they came from” argument (think it through to its logical conclusion and I’d be resettled somewhere in northern Germany). We need to go elsewhere for our definition of citizenship: ethnicity and ancestry just isn’t enough, and tainted with nasty, inaccurate notions of racial purity. (Incidentally, the whole Anglo-Saxon thing started mainly a socio-linguistic category for a group of loosely connected northern German tribes in the 5th century AD, and has since changed.) There is a value to knowing history, and being aware of where you fit in on a national and global scale, if nothing else to remember that you are but one little person in a whole world of other people who know and care little about you.

So what about culture? This is where things are no longer just instinctive gut reactions but simple downright irrational feelings. Whatever my perception of culture is, it is going to be affected by my ethnic, religious and socio-economic background (white, loosely but since abandoned Christian, lower middle class, southern small town) and by the contexts in which I move and work. I queue, I drink beer, favour coffee over tea, like pleases and thankyous, dislike bad manners, opera, ballet and football in equal measure, lean politically left when it suits, but stay largely centre, distrust the government, think public education and a public health service is a Good Thing, enjoy science fiction, watched Swap Shop and not Tiswas, have divorced parents, my own marriage, two children and three brothers. I butter my sandwiches on both sides, don’t understand cheese with fruit cake, rhyme scone with bone, wear jeans pretty much every day, dislike suits except for weddings and the rest, ride a bike, drive a little. All of these things influence me and my perception of culture.

But so what? None of these tell us anything about Britain as a whole. I can look at no part of that, or indeed the whole thing, and say “ah ha, there is my culture” because these things only apply to me. My own experiences, as I discover every time a learner comes to me with a problem outside college, are so often very removed from those of my learners, themselves often also citizens of Britain, and even different to the backgrounds and experiences of my contemporaries.

These historical/cultural aspects of citizenship, of course, form the bulk of the Life in the UK test, and I have problems with this. Not in passing it: I’m quite nerdy and rather like trivia, so knowing some of the more arcane detail is rather good fun.

However, knowing the role of the UK in the United Nations and the roles of the Speaker and the Whips in Parliament are both things I spent most of my life neither knowing nor caring about. (I remain unsure about the first, and only have a vague knowledge of the second). I also used the word trivia above: and a lot of it seems pretty trivial, on a day to day, being alive basis, something which is looking like it will be heightened in the new version.

Then there is the question of who decides this stuff? No one asked me, for instance, and I’m just as qualified as Theresa May and her civil servants. And who asked immigrants and refugees what they thought? Or is it just a construct of an educated political class which is, especially now, incredibly distanced from the reality of life in the UK.

For me, being a citizen is something I can neither define nor quantify. Which raises all sorts of questions: the citizenship programme has a specific agenda, not all of which I agree with. Indeed there are aspects of my role as an ESOL teacher which I am uncomfortable with: am I in the business of training passive citizens, whose role in life is to work and accept the status quo which places them at the bottom of the social ladder? (If you think this is wrong, then think about the old skills for life materials which uniformly place ESOL learners in passive consumer/non-aspirational roles). Or am I in the business of giving people a tool with which to do what they want? Or am I just a language teacher? Certainly I am not qualified to teach “citizenship”, and anyone who thinks they are, frankly, are even less qualified than I am.

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