Asking Questions about Each Other
The Briton must not mind our asking such questions, since he himself is asking a lot of similar ones about us. If we have much to learn about him, and many misconceptions to correct, he is in the same fix about us. He has not in the past given us much sustained thought or study. In his schools he might get a fair amount of American geography, but we dropped out of his history books at the time of the American Revolution. From that went onward we appear in them only when some really important Anglo-American problems crop up, and on a panorama that covered 2,000 years of history, such problems didn’t crop up often. The War of 1812, for instance, would not receive more than a paragraph in a British high school history text.
If the Briton went to college he would learn a good deal more about us, in patches rather than in whole cloth, but his teachers would prefer that he studied a few things intensively rather than spread a smattering of superficial knowledge over the universe. There was so much to be learned about his native land, about Europe, and the Empire that his time was almost fully occupied on those topics. In fact he did not show much eagerness to learn about his own Empire, and when Australians or Canadians went to England they were often startled at the average Briton’s ignorance about the dominions.
Today, from the youngsters upward, Britons are trying to learn more, to get at something nearer the truth, and if possible the whole truth. Recent accounts tell of an exhibition called “America Marches,” put on in London by our Office of War Information and its British counterpart, of a series of conferences attended by thousands of high school students in provincial towns to learn about American conditions, of countless lectures, of the demand for more American news in the shrunken newspapers, of questions put to our men who are over there, and of the best-seller position gained by books on American conditions.
Yet the questions asked often indicate how difficult is the road to understanding. Our men sometimes puzzle the British by asking about things the British simply take for granted. The same is equally true the other way round. Suppose, for example, that you were host to an intelligent observant young Briton. He would be puzzled by many features of our politics, sports, education, and meals, and might ask such things as the following: Why does a small state like Nevada have the same number of senators as a populous one like New York? Why do you begin to get excited about your national elections more than a year before the votes are cast? Why do you have czars of baseball and movies? Why do you allow substitutes in football; why do you need such elaborately drilled signal plays; and what is the purpose of organized rooting? Why are boys in the upper grades and in high school not taught chiefly by men?
These questions would all spring from the fact that he had noticed something to which he not accustomed, and was curious to know the reason—and they would probably puzzle most of us. The best that we could reply would doubtless be that there was some perfectly good reason—historical, political, economic, social, or otherwise—the nature of which we could not at the moment recall. And we should make a mental note to put him on a similar spot if we were ever his guest in England.
Understanding another people is no easy task. It is often difficult for those of us who live in one region of the United States to understand the attitudes, ways of life, or even the speech of those who belong to other regions. Understanding the British is a much harder task. It requires a knowledge of a stretch of history at least three or four times as long as our own story since the settlement of Jamestown or the coming of the Pilgrim Fathers. We need to remember that many peoples have found their way to the British Isles and helped to produce its mixed stock—Celts, Angles, Saxons, Scandinavians, Normans, Jews, and Protestant refugees. Who is a typical Briton? The royal family is of German ancestry, the leading newspaper proprietor is Canadian, the most famous cartoonist is a Zealander, the first woman in Parliament is a Virginian, and Mr. Churchill is half American. We can perhaps picture a typical Scot, Welshman, or Irishman; but who is typical of England—Charles Laughton, C. Aubrey Smith, Gracie Fields, or the late Leslie Howard?
Apart from these human considerations, we need to know the influence exerted by a mild climate, never very hot or very cold, but often rainy, raw, or foggy, too fickle for the planning of picnics, but good to work in. We have to take account of the variety of natural resources, some of them rich and abundant: Finally we must keep in mind the effect of being surrounded by sea and of being located on the edge of an ocean. The ring of sea has given security from invasion for nearly a thousand years, and let the British get on with their work, play, and politics with a sense of safety which made unnecessary the keeping of a large army and bred a feeling of isolation and of insularity. There is a stock joke about a weather report which once appeared in the London Times: “Dense fog over English Channel. Continent isolated.” The position on the edge of the Atlantic fostered seafaring enterprise and offered an open gate to all the seven seas.
There is no space here for an examination of all these influences. But we can make some progress toward understanding the British by examining the following four aspects of their life: (1) the land and its inhabitants; (2) the country’s economic activities; (3) its social structure; and (4) its political institutions, methods, and outlook.