Scottish Studies: Cultural Education or Political Brainwashing?

The independence debate surrounding Scotland has raised many questions regarding Scotland’s place in the world. While there are issues surrounding the economy and political policy, ultimately, a debate on national identity boils down to exactly that, national identity.

When we consider the case of Scotland we are faced with a cultural choice. Are we Scottish, British or both? The outcome of this decision largely depends on our perceptions of each prospect. If there are any misconceptions or bias that may confuse the matter, it is important that Scots are well informed of their heritage, both Scottish and British.

The Scottish Government plans to introduce Scottish Studies as a unique subject in Scotland’s secondary schools covering various areas of Scottish culture including history, langauge and literature. This move has now been given a boost by the newly formed ‘Champions’ group, a non-partisan coalition that includes former teachers, academics and novelists with the aim to, “promote and explain the importance of Scottish Studies particularly, but not exclusively, in school“. The formation of the ‘Champions’ group follows previous suspicions from Ken Mackintosh MSP, former Education Spokesman for Scottish Labour, that the Scottish Government is trying to use the subject as a means to impose their political beliefs on future generations of Scots.

In a BBC News interview in 2011, Ken Mackintosh MSP outlined his suspicion that the introduction of Scottish Studies, “is just the SNP trying to brainwash children to their political view. The curriculum should be set by teachers not by politicians. Why don’t the SNP get on with deciding what exams children will sit under the curriculum for excellence in two years’ time?

Neglecting the contradiction of politicians’ role in education policy, while it is true that the Scottish Government wants to promote Scottish culture, the reasons for such a move go much deeper than simple political tactics.

The collective self-esteem of a nation reflects the people’s common knowledge and awareness of their culture. First Minister Alex Salmond claimed on his appearance on Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs that Scots have a tendency to shift from “hopeless optimism to deeply imbued pessimism and sometimes it can take a matter of minutes”. This attitude may come in to play when we consider the Scots’ general awareness of their history.

Scottish history, in general, has largely become embroiled in mythology. The tales of our history are filled with legendary heroism tainted with failure. This may be why the Scots lament glorious failures ranging from the commonly misunderstood 1745 Jacobite Rebellion to the national football team’s recent failures for qualifying for major tournaments. There are also the romantic myths spread by the works of Sir Walter Scott, Blind Harry and Robert Burns and the overly negative bias outlooks from Unionists met with an overly positive outlook from Nationalists. However, the problem does not stop, or even start, with the confusion between fact and fiction.

Centuries of Calvinism has almost certainly played a significant role in shaping the Scottish psyche. The constant demand for perfection in comparison to the example set by Jesus Christ and the total avoidance of sin, may well have lead to ‘flawed’ individuals feeling unworthy and might just explain why ‘no bad’ counts as exuberant praise amongst Scots. These unrealistic demands can put a severe amount of pressure on individuals and potentially lead to damaging results and as if these unrealistic demands were not enough pressure for a nation, the Scots have also been comparing themselves to their larger neighbours south of the border.

While the 1707 Act of Union brought about vast trading opportunities for Scotland, there were also educational benefits. Taking the example of agriculture, it has been noted by Professor Tom Devine that the English experts in the field came to educate the Scots in new techniques for working the land. Despite the Scots adaptation and eventual improvement of these techniques in certain areas, there may well have been an effect of Cultural Imperialism, making the Scots seem backward thus potentially furthering cause for low self-esteem and an inferiority complex.

This notion of the Scots as a backward nation enlightened by the Union was perpetuated by intellectuals David Hume and William Robertson. They believed that pre-1707, Scotland was an ‘uninteresting’, ‘uneducated’ and ‘barbaric’ nation. This is an incredibly biased view indeed, overlooking the rich musical traditions of the nation, which later influenced mainstream classical music in the search for a new British musical identity and the Scottish Renaissance under the Stewarts among many other great Scottish achievements.

The very nature of 21st century education calls for an increase in awareness to allow for informed choices as part of a democratic society. Without an unbiased awareness of the Scots history, it is not possible to understand why we find ourselves in the position we are in today and could even allow for past mistakes to be repeated as opposed to learned from. With such confusion surrounding Scottish history and culture it is surely justified that Scottish Studies deserves a place in the curriculum as a means to uncover the truth. If there are controversial issues involved in any subject, Teachers have a responsibility to avoid imposing opinions on their pupils and to present a broad spectrum of information to allow pupils to make their own conclusions. Along with this, the heterogeneous nature of the policy making system in Scotland would inevitably pick up on potential political conditioning and ensure that learners do not fall victim of brainwashing. These factors act as insurance policies against the very suspicions raised by Ken Mackintosh MSP.

It would therefore seem that by suspecting the Scottish Government of political brainwashing, by merely wanting to teach the nation about their own culture, it could be equally argued that depriving pupils of the opportunity to study Scottish Studies is a means of political conditioning. There is clearly a need to educate the Scots in their own culture when we consider the potential benefits for national self-esteem through awareness of the truth. If current opponents to the introduction of Scottish Studies do not shift their opinion, it could well be argued that their negative stance may be detrimental to the mental health of the nation.

Euan Campbell
Political Blogger