The Sunday Times: America or Britain? It’s a tough choice for a mother to make

Photo: Krzysztof Puszczyński

Photo: Krzysztof Puszczyński

Some people need to recreate on the outside the loneliness and alienation that they feel within. The Italian novelist Italo Calvino put it quite succinctly: “The ideal place for me is the one in which it is most natural to live as a foreigner.”

That isn’t how I feel, even though I have spent all my life in the twilight of belonging. I am, to my core, an Anglo-American, neither wholly one identity nor wholly the other. I suppose you could call me a rootless cosmopolitan. Yet I have always felt the opposite. Being the “foreigner” in every place I’ve lived has made me love the two countries I call home all the more. I think that’s what originally led me to study history. As a child, floating somewhere between California and Dorset, I saw difference and similarity in a wholly different light from my peers. Nothing was completely familiar, and yet nothing was entirely foreign, either. As Rudyard Kipling wrote: “What do they of England know who only England know?”

Now that I have children of my own, I have had to think about this very deeply. Do I want them to be British, American or a hybrid like me? The decision goes beyond the question of which passport to have. Where they live and go to school will become the mould that produces the fully formed adult.

My personal and admittedly non-scientific observations of the average American childhood have made me envious of its unalloyed confidence. Not long ago I went to an end-of-term play in England. The school had one American in it, from Florida as it happened. The minute she appeared on stage it was clear that she couldn’t have come from anywhere in the British Isles. The girl was tall and looked older than her age, with glossy hair and great teeth. But more important was the confidence in the way she carried herself. Compared with all the little English girls, who sang sweetly and enunciated ever so carefully, there was the Floridian giving every line her all without the least shred of self-consciousness.

This was a girl, I realised, who had been taught to like herself, to inhabit her physical space with strength and verve. She had no qualms about speaking up or taking risks. She was a Sheryl Sandberg or Michelle Obama in the making. How I want my girls to have that same optimistic outlook on life.

But life isn’t only about being confident. I fear that the trend in America has gone so far in the direction of building self-esteem that everything else has been forgotten. Nor is it a new fashion. A few years ago I read JB Priestley’s observations on America in the 1930s. The writer of An Inspector Calls had a complicated relationship with the US, often sounding more anti-American than he intended. However, his description of American children is both funny and relevant to today. “They seemed to be living at too fast a pace,” Priestley wrote. “All of them were more adult in their tastes and style of life . . . than our own children and others I know in England. To outsiders they were civil enough, but often very rude to their parents, who had travelled so far from the old-fashion notion of parental authority that now they were oddly apologetic and conciliatory in their attitude towards these children, who were most exacting and shrill in their demands.”

That, unfortunately, sounds like a lot of American children I’ve encountered: demanding, pseudo-sophisticated and ill-mannered. But Priestley left out the key problem. Despite the endless “papers” that children are forced to write here in America, they don’t seem to know anything. Even in the expensive private schools, with their language labs fit for a university and class trips to the Antarctic, I can’t help wondering what on earth the children are doing all day. Whatever it is, I wouldn’t call it learning. At least, not in the traditional sense of being able to describe an event and its significance.

I’m told that the point of an American education is to teach a child to learn how to learn. That means, as far as I can tell, allowing children to reach university having learnt little beyond what’s available on social media. One of my saddest memories as an adjunct professor at New York University involved an undergraduate whose ideas were let down by written work that was practically illiterate. “But I was told in high school that I’m a really great writer,” she gulped through tears. What could I say except the truth: “Your teachers lied to you.”

To give the girl credit, she redoubled her efforts and ended the term with a passing grade. She genuinely wanted to learn, a state of mind I didn’t see often enough when I taught undergraduates at Oxford. They were eager to do well in their exams, but the work itself was joyless. They had been cramming since high school, and the pressure had killed all spontaneity or desire to take risks. I think an undergraduate education should focus on producing well-rounded individuals whose breadth of knowledge and cultural interests make them global citizens.

It’s odd that in Britain, where knowledge still counts for something, there’s been a persistent drive towards the narrowest interpretation of education. Whereas in America, despite the gutting of the curriculum because of misguided fads or political interference, young minds are encouraged to explore the full panoply of intellectual life. One culture sees virtue in results, the other in processes. Yet, much as Frank Sinatra sang about love and marriage, results and processes go together like a horse and carriage. You can’t have one without the other.

For now, at least, I think that Britain offers a superior education at the secondary level. All that confidence isn’t going to be of much use if you end up an ignorant know-it-all. At the university level, however, the arrows start pointing the other way. It’s one of the reasons increasing numbers of British students are applying to study in America: they have had the discipline and rigour; now they want the freedom and diversity. It’s as though the two systems are mirror images, when what would be more useful is to have something in stereoscope.

As for what to do about my children and the vexed question of where they will belong, I have no answers; only wishes. I guess time will tell if any of them come true.

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  1. Kevin Devlin

    I wanted to thank you for this article. My wife and I read it on Sunday in the Times and it resonated deeply with us. We recently came back to Northern Ireland after almost 10 wonderful years in the US in Oregon. Our kids are dual citizens and probably see themselves as more American than European. Many things brought us back, family, old friends, work, but a major factor was our troubled relationship with the US education system. For the most part we found the system to work fine at elementary level but things seemed to get misaligned at middle and high school. We really wondered what our kids were learning and how. The curriculum contained almost too much choice but only scratched the surface of many topics. In other areas, schools offered programs without any foundation courses and almost too much too soon. We were lost in the system and craved something we could navigate, where we could at least help our kids succeed. I don’t necessarily see the UK system as having all the answers but it certainly seemed to be more logical and sequential in its approach. We have yet to experience college either in the UK or the US. My sense is that the first two years of US undergraduate spends a lot of time making up for the lost years at high school. The UK system on the other hand is, I fear, too focussed on spitting out specialists before they are ready to be such. Perhaps the right answer is indeed UK high school and US undergrad. Given that tuition cost in the UK is now closing in on the US, this choice is at least economically easier to take for many parents.

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