In Britain, These Colonies Are History

Britain's surrender at Yorktown in 1781, signaling the end of the Revolutionary War: Still a big deal in this country; not so much for our friends across the pond.
Britain's surrender at Yorktown in 1781, signaling the end of the Revolutionary War: Still a big deal in this country; not so much for our friends across the pond. (By John Trumbull (1797) -- Courtesy U.s. Army Signal Corps)

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By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, May 5, 2007

LONDON Sooanne Berner, 17, studies history at her London secondary school. A bright and articulate young woman, she can discuss the rise of Bismarck's Germany in the 19th century and the influence of Stalin's Soviet Union and the Cold War on the 20th century.

What has she learned about the American Revolution?

"Nothing," she said. "We don't get taught anything about America."

Nearly every child in the United States learns about the settlement of the British colonies and the Revolutionary War, in which they won their independence. American kids learn that American rebels staged the Boston Tea Party to protest British taxation and about Paul Revere's midnight ride to warn of advancing British redcoats. The phrases of U.S. history are loaded with British connotations, and "The Star-Spangled Banner" was inspired by a British bombardment in the War of 1812. In the American high school classroom, the United States and Britain are forever entwined in the epic story of a nation's birth.

In Britain, it turns out, losing the 13 colonies was a bummer but essentially a footnote in a couple of thousand years of historical ups and downs.

"The American Revolution has faded -- it's just seen as increasingly irrelevant," said Simon Newman, former chairman of the British Association for American Studies, which promotes the study of the United States in Britain.

Newman estimated that fewer than 10 percent of students graduating from British secondary schools have studied the American Revolution and that more than a few don't realize that the United States started as a part of Britain.

Newman's group, hoping to reverse that, pays for high school teachers to attend American history teaching seminars each summer at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's home in Virginia.

"America is, and will be for some time, the most important country in the world," said Newman, who teaches at Glasgow University in Scotland. "If we don't understand where that country came from, and how the people of that country see their place in the world, we are at a disadvantage."

U.S. history was once a vital part of the British curriculum, championed enthusiastically by Winston Churchill. In the 20th century, the British watched with admiration as the United States led in World War II and the Cold War as a champion of democracy and human rights. British students avidly studied the history of a country that dominated the world stage.

But that has changed in recent decades. The European Union has grown into a powerful political and economic bloc. While maintaining close economic and cultural ties with the United States, Britain has turned its focus to Europe. Rather than studying the U.S. Supreme Court, British students are taught about the European Court of Human Rights. Courses that once focused on the U.S. civil rights movement now encompass a more global perspective.

"Students are much more likely to know who Nelson Mandela is than Thomas Jefferson," Newman said.

Part of the problem is the sheer breadth of British history. While the United States was born a little more than 200 years ago, London has been around for 10 times that long. The British have been building and losing empires for centuries, and all that history doesn't fit neatly into a couple of years of high school coursework.

"Our history goes back to the time of the Romans, so quite frankly, the American Revolution doesn't figure very highly," said Philip Davies, director of the Eccles Centre for American Studies at the British Library. "But neither does the Glorious Revolution of 1688, and that was a British revolution!"

Losing the American colonies was an important event in history, but most historians here say that other events, particularly losing India as part of the British Empire in 1947, were more significant to the national psyche. Davies said Britain "adapted quite easily" to losing the American colonies, and most people here don't even associate that territory as part of the great British Empire. The Empire is more associated with the reign of Queen Victoria from 1837 to 1901, and by then Britain and the new United States of America were "quite good friends," Davies said.

Davies said British students, and adults, remain keenly interested in U.S. politics and culture. And although American history may not be a popular subject in school, courses and seminars on American politics are extremely popular in British universities. Many Britons have a sophisticated knowledge of U.S. events and culture and are familiar with figures as divergent as entertainer Snoop Dogg and Republican Sen. John McCain.

In a survey conducted last year by YouGov, a London-based research company, 70 percent of Britons polled said they generally liked Americans. But asked to choose words that best described the United States, strong majorities selected "uncaring," "vulgar," "racially divided" and "has a lot of violent crime."

Forty-five percent said they had visited the United States. So while many British might not know that their forefathers burned down the White House in the War of 1812, millions of them have come to see it.

"I think Britain's attitude toward America," Davies said, "is very much of that of a great aunt, looking with some envy and some disdain on the nephew who has done really rather well."

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