The following article comes from Tedd Underwood-Webb, Head of English at The Elms School.
I recently enjoyed a robust catch-up with a colleague over a Nescafe Gold in the staff room, comparing examination options, in which we referenced 1980s football cliches, pop song lyrics, Shakespeare quotations and Oppenheimer’s morals. Using a common language of cultural refences, we shared our hopes, misgivings and predictions about an important upcoming change. Our thoughts were not exactly straight forward but the way that we managed to accurately communicate was by trading mutually agreed cultural reference points, both classic and contemporary: our Cultural Capital.
Cultural Capital is an individual’s bank of cultural knowledge, experiences and awareness. It helps us to understand ourselves and others. There is no definitive table of contents, and what applies to one person may not necessarily apply to another; a globalised, post-Internet Of Things world has cast us adrift on a seemingly limitless ocean of content, histories and opinions. It is complicated and the bad news is that things are not going to get any simpler as the likelihood of a shared experience diminishes as cultural options become increasingly diverse. So how do we approach this concept in schools? Does it even have a place?
The answer is yes. I am not the only one who has watched with growing dismay as the National Curriculum in England and Wales has become ever more proscriptive and examination focussed. It is a simple truth that children taught through the myopic lenses of decontextualised extracts and inflexible rubrics lack a way to approach more challenging material, concepts and tasks as they grow older.
Let me give you an example: a friend of mine sat down with her A-Level English Lit class to discuss The Wife of Bath’s Tale by Chaucer. After a brief starter activity, this loquacious, intelligent and eager class of bright young things was a little flat. She probed further and it came to light that none of them really knew any Bible stories. As a result, they were struggling to understand what was going on.
“Well, never mind,” I hear you say. “Interminably long poems written in Middle English are not exactly common coffee table chat these days.”
But let’s dig a little deeper. If you do not have a grasp upon the Bible then it is hard to make sense of a large slice of global history: why certain events occurred in a certain way or, for that matter, at all. Struggle to understand the history of Planet Earth and your grip on its politics becomes shaky. You cannot fully understand why things are as they are: why some schools in America still refuse to teach Darwinism; why speakers of minority languages in Europe are so passionate about their survival; why Israel’s relationship with other Middle East countries continues to be so fractious. It all connects. It is all culture.
You might argue that these issues can be just as well understood, or even better, with knowledge of The Quran or The Torah: I completely agree. It is not the content which matters; it is the fact that culture is being taught at all which is important. Somewhere along the line it will help us to understand the world in which we find ourselves and the people we encounter.
So, how do we teach culture? How do we provide cultural experiences on which our students can build? I am not going to produce a definitive list; there are other poor, unfortunate souls who have tried to do that and got into a terrible muddle. However, we can use Cultural Capital to produce humans who are communicative, critical and compassionate. Here are three broadly useful starting points:
1. Breadth Not Depth
Teaching English leaves me a lot of space to select a wide range of texts and to play to the strengths of the children in front of me. True: the curriculum should contain a healthy serving of time-honoured canonical works, but also poetry, drama and prose from diverse cultures, genders and time periods. It is important that as well as children seeing themselves in literature, they see others too. A variety of contextualised genres, locations and protagonists allows children to explore their own identity, and those of others, across a rich and colourful landscape.
2. Challenge and Encourage Thinking
I am passionate about the children in my care thinking critically and openly. A colleague and I run a thriving Debate Club where we encourage children to research, consider and express their views on previously unknown topics. Then we ask them to consider those views from a totally different angle. In this safe and happy space, the children begin to piece together the wider world around them and appreciate that there is very little that is straightforward or unambiguous. It is a joy to behold and sound investment in these children’s intellectual resources.
3. Be More Kind
Finally, if we have an opportunity to nurture empathy and kindness then we must grasp it with both hands. Picasso’s Guernica or Barber’s Adagio for Strings can help us to understand that culture can arise from a place of pain, suffering or persecution. Our phones can remember how we like our latte; Amazon restocks our fridges and Chat GPT will write all our blogs for us: that is all coming in the very near future, if not right now. What technology cannot do for us is understand, empathise and communicate with each other on the level that only one human can to another. We inhabit an increasingly busy, distant and digitalised world but the truth remains: we all need to take very good care of one another. Cultural Capital is an investment in a kinder and more connected future, not a treasure hoard of the past.