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Pivotal role of culture in talking up independence

There is only one argument for Scottish independence: the cultural argument.

It was there long before North Sea oil was discovered, and it will be here long after the oil has run out.

It is the only distinction that matters. No-one denies the importance of economics – putting bread on the table, jobs and health – but they are all matters of material fact unless occupied and enlivened by imagination. The arts – music, painting, architecture and, pre-eminently, literature – are the fuel and fire that makes imagination possible. Neglect them at your peril.

Why should literature be pre-eminent? Apart from experience of life itself, it is our best way to understand other people most deeply. Everyone is alike; we all share desires, frustrations, needs and predilections, but every one of us carries the cultural significance of our individuality, upbringing, birth, geography, languages, skin colour, social preferences, habits and beliefs.

In Scotland, the cultural world is distinct. History, terrain, cityscapes, landscapes, economies, and, above all, literature, give us this distinction. These things are as particular as in England, Ireland, Wales, America, France, Italy – anywhere. Our cultural identity is various, but distinct. The Borders are a long way from Shetland. Aberdeen is very different from Glasgow. Yet all share something that relates them to the identity we call Scotland.

This shared identity is mythic. It arises from historical fact but myth has a greater power than history. It is evident in the recurring themes of literature. In America, the myth of the American dream, from log cabin to White House and the myth of the frontier have potent authority. The failure of the dream is the central theme of The Great Gatsby and more schoolchildren in Scotland will read that book than anything by Walter Scott. Why?

International scholars have worked hard to make our artistic heritage more widely available. Scotland's art, music, history and literature are much more familiar now than they were 50 years ago among universities. Yet these things have not sufficiently permeated the broad spectrum of Scottish teaching or media institutions. This is the crucial point.

Independence is the best and most needed choice for Scotland's future because our arts should be a living conversation for all of us. Without them, people suffer from dullness and ignorance. The National Galleries still houses its wonderful collection of Scottish paintings in the basement. It is time to change that.

The "spine" of Scottish literature has been regenerated at particular historical moments. Allan Ramsay in the 18th century and Hugh MacDiarmid in the early 20th century deliberately set out to re-introduce older traditions of Scottish literature to their contemporaries. The resurgence of creative work in the 1980s and 1990s in Scotland coincided with a comprehensive revaluation of literature, art and music. The purpose of having this depth of understanding is to provide something essential for "vertebrate" identity – only by such understanding can the subject be compared and valued alongside other literatures.

Yet other than scholars and students, how many people in Scotland are confident about our literature and arts? A year ago on BBC 2's Newsnight I was asked: "Is there such a thing as Scottish literature?" Stunned by the question's inanity, I was grateful when the novelist AL Kennedy leaned forward and replied: "Is there such a thing as English literature or Irish literature or American literature? You don't want to claim any literature for a country because it's international and has to do with the commonality of human experience, but Scotland exists, as a cultural entity, as an historical entity. I want somebody to be able to sit in a Scottish school and think, I can succeed, being myself from my country, using the language that I use, being the person that I am ..."

The American critic Hugh Kenner began his study of modern literature in England A Sinking Island (1987) by stating the word "English", until recently, "implied the culture of an island called England". When you put your mark on the paper in the ballot box, that's what you must bear in mind. It is the essential reason why I shall vote Yes for independence.

Recently, the Scottish Government acted to end three centuries of institutional neglect in our education system by ensuring that works of Scottish literature must be in the school curriculum throughout Scotland. A recent survey demonstrated the extent of ignorance among schoolteachers of English in Scotland, most of whom still have to ask the question: "What is Scottish literature?" Following from ignorance comes fear and negativity; nobody wants to be told to teach a subject about which they know nothing.

You can sympathise with someone studying English, getting a university degree, who will know not only Shakespeare, Austen and Dickens, but also some American, Irish and post-colonial work. But most UK university English departments don't teach Scottish literature. Only one in Scotland has an established Chair in the subject.

Those of us who argued for an exam question were opposed by the biggest teachers' union. The EIS said an exam question on Scottish literature is not the best solution because exams put students off. So why have exam questions on Shakespeare?

As a professional teacher since 1986, teaching Scottish literature in New Zealand, China, India, France, Romania, Poland, Spain, Australia, Singapore, Ireland, the US and Scotland, I believe teaching in courses over time is absolutely necessary. But so are exams. They test certain skills, capacities for knowledge and the application of knowledge under pressure, that are valuable. Not everyone likes what they're taught, but they will remember what they need.

I deplore the competition mentality that skews teaching to produce league-table results. As for responses to the mandatory Scottish question, anecdotes are not evidence but some of the stories I have heard are appalling. At one headteachers' meeting, allegedly, the verdict was that there were no teachable plays by Scottish authors. At another, the opinion was that compared to English, Irish or American literature, no Scottish literature was of any quality.

These comments go beyond "What is Scottish literature?" If they represent anyone's true opinions, they are based on ignorance, prejudice and political hostility – not only to me and the subject I profess, but to every generation of schoolchildren that comes under their care. It is time to change that forever.

Alan Riach is Professor of Scottish Literature at Glasgow University.

Ian Bell is away.

Contextual targeting label: 
Education

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