“Remember that you are an Englishman, and have consequently won first prize in the lottery of life”, Cecil Rhodes once said. This epigram seems to epitomise the spirit of our nation, albeit in a very old-fashioned way; we seem to have always had an introspective fascination with England, Englishness and in a wider sense, Britishness. It lies somewhere between lion-hearted pride and starched-collar embarrassment. Similarly, there is something of a tourist-drawing curiosity (bordering on fetishism in some cases) with our national identity to be found in other countries. Now however, it has become an academic discipline of growing popularity in the universities across the world. According to journalist Zoë Corbyn “British studies is flourishing”, with a particularly high concentration in the United States. Those teaching it include the University of Chicago, the University of California and Columbia University, New York to name but a few.
At the University of California, British male ‘banter’ is approached by analysing episodes of Ricky Gervais’ comedy The Office. This seems a little odd to me – what sort of image of English men is this putting across? Is the impression given that all British males communicate via adaptations of the cringe-inducing awkward-fest that is the David Brent dance? Furthermore, the ever-changing, ever-contested notion of class is dealt with using Victorian literature at the University of Columbia, which seems about as appropriate as using a selection of barbeque utensils to perform open-heart surgery. It all seems faintly ridiculous; yet perhaps these are an unfair selection of the subject’s oddest aspects. Teaching academics profess that the subject is a broad examination of British literature, culture, history and politics.
This is pretty much a carbon copy of what we have here in the UK in the shape of American Studies, which has been a discipline at British universities for years. It seems that the US version is just a few years behind. The motive behind American students joining British Studies courses seems to be blatant Anglophilia. There’s a perception that the American view of Britain is that of a twee nation of bowler hats, red telephone boxes and tea; and the fascination of this is what leads to its study. However, ardent British-studiers seem keen to dig deeper than the assumed British stereotype.
Granted, the average American tourist seen in London may declare loudly that he ‘wants a cup o’ that Queen’s tea’ in a hilarious imitation cockney accent, but American students are attracted to the ‘new way’ of studying the British Empire, warts and all. Their view embodies a shift away from the ‘Little England’ idea, according to British Studies co-director Philippa Levine at the University of Texas. Fields of study cover not only historical and political areas of knowledge, but also ones of contemporary pop culture, including British film, music and sporting rituals. As you can see, there is a vast range of juicy British cultural tendencies to choose from.
Now I think there is no problem with British Studies in America; anything that imports some of our excellence (I’m a patriot) over the Atlantic is good, splendid and spiffing. What does rile me is the notion put forward that British Studies as a cultural discipline should make the leap to our very own nation. Levine says, ‘‘I would love British studies to travel to Britain. It would be very healthy’.’
I wouldn’t. As a nation, our culture and national identity is already very much deeply set in its inhabitants, and it would be very ‘un-British’ to turn it into a subject with marks out of 100. Furthermore, Britain shifts culturally, socially and politically like mercury. It is always changing and developing, shot through with British humour that is impossible to codify – and would lose its bite if it was put under the microscope as an all-inclusive ‘study of Britain for the British’. After all, no one in this country should ever, ever sit an exam paper that reads, ‘Fish n’ Chips are superior to Bangers n’ Mash. Discuss’.