Saturday 20 October 2012

O gawd, here comes 'Cultural Literacy' again.

Journalist Fran Abrams here:

is floating - or re-floating - a boat which, she claims, is Michael Gove's favourite reading. It's the old argument about 'Cultural Literacy' which E.D.Hirsch launched in the US in 1983.

This has all the potential for blowing up into quite a nasty little fight. The harder this government finds it to convince a majority of voters that they should take a cut in living standards, a cut in their social provision and a cut in their income in order to pay for the greed and incompetence of moneymen lying about the debts they sold each other, so they will try to a)blame the victim and b)wave the national flag.

Education is a perfect site for this kind of roguery. Regular doses of talking about illiterate school-leavers and incompetent teachers does the blame-the-victim work and similar doses sniping at multi-culturalism and blowing the trumpet for a 'national' culture or 'core' cultural 'entitlement' will serve the job for flag-waving.

To be clear, on blame-the-victim: this government is building failure into the system. It's doing this by cementing the policy of schools (or 'chains' of schools) competing against each other for customers and by creating an exam system in which a guaranteed percentage will leave school with no qualification. Job done.

The cultural entitlement argument is more complex.

Here are my thoughts:

1. The moment a government makes statements about some kind of core culture we are entitled to ask, how was this core decided on? Who decided it? On what basis?

These questions have to be asked because 9 times out of 10, these choices are made by tiny self-appointed or government appointed elites who have their own special reasons for wanting to impose a set of cultural choices on teachers and pupils.

2. A country and its 'state' are not the same thing. A country is where we live and work. The state is the machine or apparatus which runs the country. People in a country live, express and consume culture in many different ways. By and large this is not coercive in the way that schooling has become. That's to say, within the choices afforded us by society, we choose what music, films, TV, live entertainment etc we are going to consume. Of course these choices are constrained or even 'constructed' by how the entertainment business is run and by the ideas that dominate at any given time. However, this is not the same kind of domination as the state demanding and enforcing that teachers teach and pupils consume specific items of 'culture'.

In effect, the Hirsch argument is that a tiny elite of clever people know better than teachers and better than pupils or their families what should constitute a cultural diet. It is not usually expressed that way. The claim is that what is being put on offer are core texts which are in some way or another essential for taking part in the state and/or achieving success within the education system.

This is a self-serving argument. Clearly, any set of texts defined as 'core' which must be read, learnt, studied and tested will by necessity, be those necessary for succeeding within the system.

3. I'm of the view that any attempt to define a country (ie not the state) in terms of a handful of texts is not much more than a fib.It's a fib in at least two ways: 1) it will fall short in terms of diversity either by virtue of being so small, or by virtue of the cultural composition of the elite who chose the list 2)any attempt to define a country or a nation will create a false sense that a 'country' is some kind of homogenous unity.

In fact, it is this latter point which is at the heart of the politics here. It takes as read, (or assumes) that there is a universal agreement that we should all be trying to get behind a national culture and that this national culture can be or should be defined by people like Michael Gove, Nick Clegg, David Cameron and the rest.

Clearly, there is a massive irony in that there is every possibility that Gove would be the person pushing this through at the very moment his country of origin and background may well depart from the nation of the UK.  Or, put another way, even as a Scots minister of education is trying to impose a cultural core on England (not a nation state) in the name of the UK (which is the nation state) Scotland may well be departing from that nation state.

Again, there are big choices coming up for anyone ruling this country in the present set-up concerning the extent to which 'we' are European. There is a strong coherent argument for saying that most of the texts which influenced people in this country up until the First World War were really a result of European cultural movements, ideas and tendencies rather than English or British. Since that time, there has been the added effect of how the US has had an impact. The British state has of course ruled over the territory of the UK, but the peoples of the UK have never limited themselves to their locality in terms of what they've produced and consumed culturally. To take one obvious example: Shakespeare - his plays are at their very heart European, whether in terms of language, story, imagery, tone or whatever.

So the Hirsch argument if applied rationally and logically would select many hundreds of texts and these would be acknowledge, welcome and celebrate this Euro-Americano mingling.

4. However, what I've said here isn't sufficient either. A country is a place where population exchange takes place: people arrive, people leave. The usual, conventional model for this is that a 'host' culture receives a 'migrant' culture. I don't think that this describes what really happens any more - or indeed if it ever did.

Whoever is here doing the receiving in this model is not some unchanging, homogenous bloc. It is itself full of change, flux and diversity - sometimes even as it proclaims itself as being the essence of the nation, a defining characteristic of Britishness. The monarchy is a good example of this: a quick scan of the personnel of the present monarchy and it's clear that it's an anglo-German-Greek mixture and the long, supposedly continuous line is full of people from all over Europe.

Then again, when people arrive, of course they adapt and change according to what they find but even as they do so, they start to affect people around them. A good example of this is language. The UK is full of many accents and dialects each of which is a product of certain streams or strands. So, for a while in the post-war period there was a style of upper class male speech that was deeply affected by the tiny group of men who flew aeroplanes during the Second World War. The various styles of speech of Liverpool have been affected by the presence of Ireland and Wales. London speech of young people in many areas is greatly affected by the influence of Caribbean settlement.

All this requires a much more complex model than 'host' and 'immigrant' as a description. We need to have something much more in flux, much more mixed but also one which involves battles and contests. What I mean by that is precisely around the kinds of things that Abrams, Hirsch and Gove appear to be talking about. That's to say, culture isn't neutral. Apart from anything else, any example you might think of involves many kinds of assertion, canvassing, lobbying, recruiting and ultimately finance to survive. For opera to survive in its present form requires an agreement by the state to spend millions on it. For Irish traditional music to survive in London, it requires enough people to work at keeping venues and rehearsal going - often with virtually no financial support. Some cultural forms are invited into the heart of schools and public ceremonies and others aren't.

5. What I've written above is often dubbed 'cultural relativism' or 'anything goes' by the Hirsch-Gove school, and, it's claimed, involves a certain kind of duplicity. That's to say, the claim is made that 1) I'm ducking the issue of 'value' or 'worth' and 2) I received and absorbed what is in effect a national cultural core and that's what has enabled me to succeed.

re 1) - no, I would say that the question of value and worth is one that has to be fought out in debate, discussion and action. Culture that is enforced is rather like 'our'  liberals who think they can bomb countries into 'democracy' when in fact they are trying to enforce a rule that favours us and our requirements for strategic or economic control. Questions of what culture, what texts should be taught in schools should be a matter of constant debate and flux between practising teachers, pupils and their families.

re 2) the main reason why and how I could access the core texts of my time going through education was much more to do with what kind of parents I had, rather than what was on offer. That's to say, my highly literate parents were not only teachers, they were also very combative, curious people who themselves were very assertive about many aspects of culture which were precisely not of the dominant culture of the time. In other words, I never received culture as neutral or the norm or the core without it being exposed to questioning and/or a perspective from the outside and from an understanding that there are many other cultures 'out there' including whatever 'ours' was.

(I'm intending to elaborate on this last personal point in a future blog).

6. So, in the spirit of being forearmed, I'm offering the above as part of what will, it seems, be yet another initiative that Michael Gove will try to foist on us. To repeat, I think he will try to claim this is an educational question to do with 'entitlement'. I think that part of our job is to show how it is a way to forge some kind of national unity at a time when 'nation' in their sense is in many ways very weak. We are a multicultural society .. The present UK may well divide. The UK is in Europe (and culturally always has been). The UK is linked very strongly in a cultural sense to the US. Britain's past is inextricably linked to world trade and Empire. At a time of economic crisis at home and the dominant class's nervousness about its competitors abroad, they will try to dig out local and parochial examples (or so they think) in order to proclaim 'nation'.