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Defining the Nation: a classroom activity

Before using this activity, you might want to explore with your students issues surrounding Polish and British stereotypes. You can find lesson plans for activities in Language and Difference, and Let's Talk About, from the 'Views of Britain' issue of our web pages.

Defining the nation

This activity looks at the recent debate surrounding Britishness, and develops the themes from 'Language and Difference' and 'Let's Talk About'.

  • Stage 1 - Introduction to the revival of interest in the UK in 'defining the nation'

Students will need some background information on why this issue has become topical. This background information could either come from them reading one of the articles in this edition of the web pages, such as The Quiet Revolution, The End of the Affair, and The Untied Kingdom, or a mini-lecture from the teacher. For an outline of the main points which the teacher might cover as background, click here. You may wish to discuss which of these points are also relevant for Poland today (such as globalisation).

  • Stage 2 - Examples of some definitions

As a whole class activity, discuss one or two of the attempts to define the nation. Suggested examples are:

John Major, former prime minister: [Britain is a nation of] long shadows on county cricket grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and - as George Orwell said - old maids bicycling to Holy Communion through the morning mist.

Tony Blair, current Prime Minister: What defines Britishness are the shared values of tolerance, fair play, and decency.

Deborah Moggach, novelist: Britishness is newspapers, Marmite, pubs and the BBC - that is what people miss when they go abroad, and they must all be preserved and guarded jealously. It's also politeness - it's apologising, irony and self-mockery. It's speaking in codes and not saying what you mean, like telling someone "We must have lunch" when you can't stand them - unlocking those codes is getting to know what it is like to be British.

(Note - Marmite is a spread made from yeast extract which is very popular with some British people)

The Teacher can either elicit headings or categories for the things mentioned in the definitions, or use the table below as a model.

Can aspects from the quotations be fit into the table?

Places

Institutions

Objects
Things

Values
Ideas

Characteristics,
Attitudes, Emotions

Historical
events

Others?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  • Stage 3 - Students discuss whether the recent British pre-occupation with identity has any parallels in Poland (this may have been done earlier).

  • Stage 4 - Students attempt to define Polishness - the categories and models should help to give a framework for this.

  • Stage 5 - Distribute the list of contemporary quotes trying to define the nation which can be found here. Depending on the number of students in the group they can either work individually or in pairs. Ask students to use the table above, or the one created themselves, to categorize the contents of the definitions.

  • Stage 6 - Discussion on British and Polish definitions. Below are some further quotations which might be of use in this discussion and some points which might emerge or be worth considering:
  • The variety of British definitions - is this the same for the Polish ones?
  • Why is it so difficult to define the nation?
  • Is national culture a composite fiction?
  • Is it necessary or even healthy to try to define the nation?

John Humphrys, broadcaster: I'm always slightly puzzled by any characterisation of a nation. Who exactly is "bold and brassy"? The old-age pensioner struggling to get by? Or the mum with a couple of kids who's worried about how they're getting on in school? You simply cannot apply global definitions to an entire society, for the obvious reason that we're all different. In the swinging sixties, I suspect it was about four per cent of London that was actually swinging, while the rest of the country wondered what "swinging" meant.

Yvonne Roberts, journalist: I, for one, am not much bothered about who we say we are as a nation. Rhetoric and symbolism come cheap. Let us be judged by how we behave.

Polly Toynbee, journalist: All attempts at national definition are bogus, sentimental, a-historical, dangerously exclusive of some parts of the population, narrowly self-limiting, arrogant and potentially aggressive.

As for our own self-image, the less national navel-gazing the better. Wave no flags, make no claims, try to do the right thing more often than we have in the past. National identity is constructed from a confection of selective memories according to political taste.

Raphael Samuel, historian: Britishness, instead of being a secure, genetic identity, can be seen as something culturally and historically conditioned, always in the making, never made.


References

  • Raphael Samuel, Island Stories, Theatres of Memory, vol ii, 1998, Verso, London
  • Jeremy Paxman, The English, A Portrait of a People, 1999, Penguin
  • Polly Toynbee, 'We can be English without falling into the racist trap', Jan 12, 2000, The Guardian
  • 'Britishness'- from The Guardian, January 20 1999, interviews by Hannah Pool, Emma Brockes and Claire Phipps. Research by R&I


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