Want To Be A UK Citizen? Study Up On Monty Python And Andrew Lloyd Webber

As part of its attempts to make the U.K.’s citizenship exam more challenging, the Home Office has released a new version that, among other things, includes a wide range of questions on British culture:

The achievements of Monty Python, Rudyard Kipling and Andrew Lloyd Webber are all included in a new 180-page Home Office syllabus which asks potential citizens to learn about Britain’s history, culture and values, from the stone age to the 2010 general election, before they take a new and more tough “Life in the UK” test as part of the government’s intention to dramatically reduce net migration….

Don Flynn, director of the Migrants’ Rights Network, said: “The test takes us a long way from the goal of supporting the integration of migrants. It is in danger of looking more like an entry examination for a public school which requires complete identification with elite views of British history and culture…Migrants will have to learn about Purcell, Benjamin Britten and the Beatles, and “artistic achievements, from medieval stained glass to David Hockney, our national love of gardening, and the work of influential architects”.

I’m obviously sympathetic to complaints about the slants of historical interpretation in the exam. But I’m torn on the question of culture. I appreciate the recognition that part of being a citizen is having a sense of your national and collective culture. Even if you think the Super Bowl is obnoxious, or can’t hit the highest notes in the national anthem, I think most Americans have a general sense of those things, and some feelings about what it means that we like watching large men barrel into each other at high speeds, or the persistence of “Sweet Home Alabama.”

What’s a lot harder, however, turning the task of establishing an unofficial national canon over to the state. While The Guardian, in the piece I’m quoting above, spends more time on objections to the history sections of the exam, I can’t imagine everyone’s pleased with the menu of British culture that’s included in the test, whether the objections are based on the mix of high and low culture, or how multicultural the contributions are. Personally, I’d want to protect new citizens from knowledge of Andrew Lloyd Webber, but that’s just me. And this is for a relatively small country, albeit one with a long literary, architectural, and musical history—I can’t imagine what the fights over establishing a pool of knowledge for an American citizenship test would go. While canon implies something fixed and permanent, I’m a lot happier with a constant state of argument and revision, one not facilitated by the Home Office, or any other government body.