Please Sir, can you spare a dime?

Our children are being taught to count with American software, but Nicholas Tucker sees no cause for alarm
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Forget about Europe for a moment. The perennial establishment anxiety about undue American influence on British culture is back in the news. The spokesman this time is Dr Nick Tate, head of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority. The chief focus of his worry is the flood of American software into schools, where pupils are now expected to practise mathematics by working in dollars, dimes and cents and take English tests sprinkled with spellings such as color, gray and mom.

Schools use American software because we do not have the market or capital to develop our own educational materials on anything like the same scale. Some spilling over of Americanisms is therefore inevitable, just as it has always been in our American-dominated film world. But despite dire warnings in the past and the brief existence of the mid-Atlantic accent in the late 1940s, Britain still remains very much itself. There may be more hamburgers and colas on sale than before, but we still walk on pavements (not sidewalks), go to the cinema (not the movies) and take out the rubbish (not the garbage) at night.

American influences can also go as well as come. The Cambridge pundit FR Leavis used to warn his students against "crooners" and the noxious effects of listening to what he would always insist on calling "boogie- woogie" long after such terms had become museum pieces. He would never have guessed that British pop music would one day influence what American teenagers listened to, although he would certainly have hated what we produce here just as much.

Other Cassandra voices sounding off against American domination have followed different agendas. The Comic Campaign Council in the 1950s that worked successfully to ban American horror comics was mostly made up of active Communist Party members - a fact unknown all that time to its innocent chairman George Pumphrey, a Sussex headmaster. Bashing America has long been an acceptable tactic for the far left, always ready to discredit the home of rampant capitalism whenever the chance arose. They were often joined in this endeavour by members of the extreme right, typified by Evelyn Waugh, who on hearing the views of a distinguished literary critic merely replied that since the gentleman concerned was also an American there was consequently no need to take his opinion seriously.

The driving force here was quite different: a vision of feudal Britain where any transatlantic term or twang was an uncomfortable reminder that time had moved on with the world - and Britain's former place in it was diminished. How else can one explain the occasional case of irrational fury over odd Americanisms in the language, so brilliantly parodied by Michael Frayn writing in the guise of Lord Disgusted in 1963. "Every time I hear the word `commuter' I can see a red haze of rage in front of my eyes. It is an entirely unnecessary outrage, since there is a perfectly good English expression: `A man who lives in one place and works in another, and who travels back and forth between the two each day.' There is simply no need for a new word."

A more serious worry exists over the future of British children's literature. Almost all children's authors over here produce books with at least half an eye on the American market, our own - badly damaged by government cuts to schools and libraries - is no longer able to support a thriving children's literature industry by itself. The type of changes that arise are still fairly minimal: a case of changing a few names around and avoiding issues American publishers tend to be more sensitive about than are our own publishers. But should all children's books start disappearing in favour of videos and the multi-media, there would indeed be a problem.

A country and culture that cannot recognise itself in its own stories risks becoming invisible. Pocahontas, The Lion King and Aladdin are all right in their way, but it is reasonable to expect British children to find some reflection of their own background and habits in their entertainment. In the literature that exists today there is no problem: we produce the best picture books in the world, with some fine novels to turn to later. But for children dependent entirely upon the screen, good home-grown productions are few and far between among the avalanche of feeble cartoon shows and American films now dominating the home television and video market.

Should we therefore put up the same type of defence against cultural invasion so heroically mounted by the French in the Gatt trade negotiations of recent memory? It is a tempting idea, if we could only first agree among ourselves what exactly British culture truly is. As always, this is not easy. Charles Dickens, the epitome of British reading tastes in the 19th century, was outsold at the time by one GWM Reynolds with novels like Lives of the Harem. The BBC, once seen as the true voice of Britain, used to lose out to the commercial Radio Luxembourg in audience numbers even when broadcasting was in its heyday. Who - or what - most stands for British taste in these two examples?

British culture has always been a hotch-potch, borrowing from abroad when the mood arises. The trick is to absorb the alien before the alien absorbs us. But whether the dollars, dimes and nickels so disliked by Dr Tate are really a national threat may be doubted. In this particular case, it could even be that pupils tired of failing arithmetic tests based on our own currency might find the whole idea of thinking in American money interesting and novel enough to start doing better!

The writer is lecturer in child psychology and children's literature at Sussex University.

Comments