A Stormzy in a tea cup (bone china, Earl Grey if you please)

I’ve got a bit of a problem with the latest edu-pervasive term ‘cultural capital’. And it’s not just because I’m a grey-haired History teacher with socialist tendencies and a rod up my backside (the two are entirely independent). It’s the white, middle-class paternalism that bugs me. The notion that those students whose demographic information marks them as having less financially could somehow have less culturally. As if because money buys culture, it is purely transactional. Doesn’t that say a heap of something about the society in which we live?

I’m not daft. Money buys holidays, tickets to the theatre, experiences outside of your own doorstep. Money buys access to live streaming of events you can’t get to on the other side of the planet, and obscure films by art-house directors. But it doesn’t necessarily equate to having culture, or a tangible value on an individual level. The recent kerfuffle over Stormzy Vs Mozart is testament to a generation of people panicking that society is going to hell in a handcrafted, heritage reed handbasket. It should be noted that this happens at least once a generation. When potatoes were first brought to Europe in the late 1500’s there was probably an upper-class outcry that the country was going to pot, whilst peasants’ digestive systems used to being punished by coarse bread breathed a sigh of relief*.

This week we had a TeachMeet where staff presented strategies they had been working on with colleagues on assigned areas. I’ve spent a term wrestling with the idea of raising students’ cultural capital and have come to the conclusion that they probably increased mine more than I did theirs. My chosen strategy was to focus on a Year 10 GCSE History class, one that has a spectacular array of quirky awesomeness within the group, with an increasing desire to ask questions. This was probably more to do with the fact that they have a 100 minute lesson on a Friday and didn’t want me to harp on about the rise of Hitler for longer than I had to rather than their sharpened minds thirsty for enquiry…

We decided to allow what I would like to term ‘Regulated Anarchy’ (in case anyone would like to include it in the latest ‘fix-all’ teaching manual on Amazon). Basically, they could ask me questions. Any questions. Questions off-topic could be parked until they found the answer. Relevant or linked questions we could humour. These moments became breaks in the specified learning and soon they came to lessons prepared with interesting facts which included:

  • The fact that plastic dinosaurs were made from real dinosaurs
  • That polar bears aren’t white -they have hollow hairs to hold in heat that make them look white;
  • They made links between the current Brexit negotiations with the impact of the Treaty of Versailles (mind blown, coffee earned on that one);
  • They could link the themes of Star Wars with Nazi Dictatorship.

The bigger win was the fact that we have a classroom where it is ok not to know stuff. Where we don’t feel ‘less than’ for not knowing something that someone says we should, and that’s me included. I realised that just by listening and learning, I have students sat in front of me who speak more languages than I do, play more instruments than I do, who have read more Shakespeare than me and can also explain the concepts in Japanese animation, who have travelled to places I have never been and who have wide interests and broad knowledge about a whole host of things. And what they didn’t know, they can and will ask about. Yet I’m the one responsible for raising their cultural capital because I’m the one with a pretty collection of letters after my name.

I still have issues with the term. Whilst I accept that as adults, parents and teachers, we have a responsibility to expose young people to the world in all it’s fabulousness, the term ‘cultural capital’ should come with a hefty social warning. Let’s shift our thinking from cultural transactions to cultural openness and acceptance. That my heritage might be different to yours but neither are ‘less than’ when the comparative financial cost is totted up and someone hands the school the receipt.

*I appreciate that the concept of the digestive systems of peasants breathing a sign of relief is a somewhat farty description. My ten year would be proud, so I am not changing it. So there.

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