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26 March 2022

Ballet to Blake, we must break the hold of cultural capital

While cultural poverty is nowhere near as serious as actual poverty, there remain industries where people will look down on you for not getting a joke about the Iliad.

By Marc Burrows

When it comes to Britain’s weird preoccupation with social class, it’s not who you know, it’s what you know. The way we are perceived is entirely tied up in the context of our knowledge and interests. Ballet over Bridgerton. Pollock over punk. Most people would consider me definitively middle class these days: I live in Hackney, work in journalism and tech, write biographies on the side and once went to see a play that didn’t have any songs or audience interaction in it (it was mostly boring). Despite growing up in social housing and spending the Nineties at the worst state school in rural Leicestershire, my salt-of-the-earth credentials are not something I could argue with a straight face. And yet lacking that famous high-art “cultural capital” has always left me with the feeling of having somehow cheated my way somewhere I don’t belong.

I first felt it in my early twenties on a trip to the Tate Modern with the family of my posh then-girlfriend. Observing a video installation of a man dressed as a demon, jumping up and down angrily, my partner’s mum turned to her youngest son, all of six years old, and asked, “So what do you think he’s feeling, Felix?” I was stunned. I just stood there. Because it would never in a million years occur to me to ask that question. It made perfect sense, of course — get a child to start thinking critically and creatively about art. It was just a question that no one in my family would ever have thought to ask. I had never studied fine or conceptual art at any level, I’d barely been to real galleries, I had never been taught to think about art like that. It was one of those moments where the chasm between a person’s worldview and the actual world is suddenly wider than any ocean.

This is “cultural capital”: the idea that knowing about “proper” culture, typically things like classical music, fine art, theatre and classic literature, is a quantifiable commodity that can help you get ahead in life. Before we get into that, we should get one thing clear. As Nadeine Asbali points out in her excellent New Statesman piece “Poor kids need full bellies, not more trips to museums”, cultural poverty is not as serious as actual poverty. Being able to quote Shakespeare’s sonnets or quickly identify Vivaldi’s Lute Concerto in D major when watching University Challenge will not stop a child starving to death. If the only Homer your children can name is bright yellow and has a wife called Marge, that’s okay. Knowing where their next meal is coming from is way more important. There is a lot to unpack, address and understand about the role cultural capital plays in our society, but it’s nowhere near as vital as the role of free school meals and food banks. To argue that museums are as important as milk is spectacularly stupid, and I won’t be going near that view here.

The role of cultural capital in education, however, is very much like a hazelnut chocolate bar in a microwave: a hot topic that’s getting increasingly messy. “It is the essential knowledge that pupils need to be educated citizens,” a 2019 Ofsted memo on school inspections said, “introducing them to the best that has been thought and said, and helping to engender an appreciation of human creativity and achievement.” The focus on “culture” caused an immediate uproar in education circles, and there has been resistance. The latest manifestation of this is a detailed study in the British Journal of Sociology of Education, which found that exposure to museums and theatres had no impact on exam results. In short, despite long-held beliefs, the impact of that exposure was not quantifiable in the education system.

However, while it’s vindicating to know that exposure to the arts doesn’t impact your grades, those of us from less privileged backgrounds who in later life found ourselves working alongside the public-school-and-Oxbridge crowd are only too aware of the gaps in our knowledge. We’re familiar with the alienating hot flush felt when someone in a meeting drops an impenetrable reference to the Iliad and everyone, bafflingly, laughs — as once happened to me in a newspaper’s morning conference. Once you’ve seen the judgy glint in the eyes of a colleague when they find you went to Loughborough, not Oxford, the feeling of inadequacy never quite goes away. 

And that’s a problem. Learning about this stuff might not affect exam results, but it does affect how you see yourself in the world. As the BJSE study shows, the problem isn’t that young people aren’t gathering “cultural capital”; they seem to be doing perfectly fine without it. Rather, it’s that there are whole industries and networks where not having that specialist knowledge is looked down upon. We don’t need to change what children are learning, we need to change those systems that consider laughing at a joke about the Iliad to be a marker of someone’s intelligence. The way to combat impostor syndrome is not to cram all of the world’s learning into the head of every teenager, it is to work towards a world where not having those lessons doesn’t matter. Culture moves on, it changes and flexes and warps. Jazz was once punk rock, now it’s seen almost as classical music. Modern artists were baffling, dangerous and anti-establishment; now their works hang in palaces and senate buildings. The one thing that both Homers have in common is that neither of them have been funny for years. Never mind the Pollocks.

So let’s encourage critical thinking, absolutely. Let’s take kids to art galleries and encourage them to look at abstract images and think coherent thoughts. Let’s take them to see An Inspector Calls and Waiting For Godot, not because we think it’s stuff they should learn, but because they’re good plays. Let them find their own way, and let’s not judge them on arrival if they’re more familiar with Tiger King than they are with William Blake’s “The Tyger”. I have spent years in an industry I always dreamt of breaking into feeling inadequate and uninformed, lumpen and uneducated. Every once in a while I realise that I’m doing fine anyway. We don’t need to encourage or discourage the accumulation of cultural capital. We just need to change its value.

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