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Maha Atal ’08: Lost in the time zone conversion

Culture shock in a small, old (and rainy) isle?

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

The first thing you’ll notice about England is that things are small. This is a nation of country cottages, city houses packed tightly on each block, windy spiral staircases that lead to closet-size attic bedrooms and narrow cobbled streets that wind into themselves for lack of anywhere else to turn.

England itself is a small space. Squeezing 60 million people into 94,000 square miles is a tall order, and the English treat each inch as though it were an acre. When I tell fellow students that Brown is only three hours’ drive from my home in New York and that I can therefore easily go home for a weekend, they begin to calculate the equivalent trip in the United Kingdom. “I’d never pop over to Wales for an afternoon!” they protest. “That’s a trip I’d plan for months in advance.” And with England’s impressive, but complicated, system of public trains and buses, they’d probably have to.

Perhaps the second thing you’ll notice about England is that things here are old. With buildings going back to Roman times, a steady history of government since 1066 and a political system largely unaltered since the 17th century, this is a country that values tradition. A family I stayed with for a night in a farm cottage told me apologetically that they had only traced their family tree back to the 1700s. How many of my friends at home, I wondered, could boast having researched their trees half as thoroughly?

It is not that American families lack old lineage, or that our streets are completely devoid of old buildings. We just care less about how old we, or our houses, are. Age can hardly be a defining feature in a country that is less than three centuries old and that prides itself on its ability to reinvent its cultural identity with each generation, and each expansion across space.

From Thomas Jefferson to Frederick Turner to today’s McMansion owners, Americans have believed that wide, open spaces mean the freedom to stay forever young. Instead of small old chapels, we proclaim as national monuments forests, mountains, canyons, skyscrapers, and roller coasters – in other words, whatever we can find that is big.

England and “the States” are like apples and oranges. With different approaches to time and space, our cultures operate in different dimensions. This goes a long way to explaining the British approach to education. While the Brits are prone to think in small spaces for long periods of time, we are trained to think (though not too long or hard) about as much as possible.

A high school student here studies three subjects and enters college with a major set in stone. After three years “reading” for their chosen degree, the average student emerges with knowledge that is deep, but narrowly focused. My colleagues here can explain in seamless narrative the complete history of one place, while I have assorted facts and anecdotes from around the world.

However (as I remind myself), they missed out the wider lens adventure of the American system. They never got to take a class outside their concentration, S/NC and “just for fun” only to find out that unrelated disciplines do inform one another and that even a philosopher can benefit from a semester in Econ 11.

England has lost its former place at the top of the world in part because it has resisted economic change and refused to expand its precious family-tree circles to include immigrant communities. It’s the inclusiveness that the wider American view provides that I will miss most.

Ultimately, whether its propensity for nooks and crannies makes English culture cozy or cramped is the question I hope to answer while I’m here. But until I do, I’m just marveling at the old buildings outside my bedroom window and wondering if the culture I’m exploring isn’t passed on somehow by these creaking structures from years past.

Maha Atal ’08 is a patriot, but she does prefer scones to bagels.

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