Culture and class

Took a while to figure out what I thought of this lot but got there eventually:

Bourdieu, P (1984) Distinction, London: Routledge, p. 5-7

Held, D (2004) Introduction to Critical Theory, London: Hutchinson, 89-107

Legg, R (2012) “Bach, Beethoven, Bourdieu: ‘cultural capital’ and the scholastic canon in England’s A-level examinations,” The Curriculum Journal, 23:2, 157-172

Hirsch, E D (1988) ‘The Theory Behind the Dictionary: Cultural Literacy and Education’ in Hirsch, Trefil and Kett (eds) The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Boston: Houghton Mifflin

Barrow, R and Woods, R (2006) An Introduction to Philosophy of Education, London: Routledge, 155-173

Mr Beethoven

The Bourdieu excerpt reports on his 1960’s study correlating socio-economic class with musical preferences. The essence of his findings is that those with ‘lower’ social origin and low educational capital are more likely to prefer popular music, while a preference for ‘serious’ music tends to be more prevalent in the upper classes. Nothing remotely surprising there – but why isn’t it surprising? Where do my own preconceptions around class and Culture originate?

Fifty years on from Bourdieu, the BBC’s British Class Survey claims to have ‘revealed’ seven different social classes. The traditional ‘working class’ are now collecting their pensions and their old jobs have been taken over by machines. The modern lower classes now comprise the ‘precariat’ and their marginally less uncomfortable neighbours the ‘emergent service workers’. We have a new ‘technical middle class’ – those who have plenty of money but still don’t go to museums or the opera like the Cultured classes, which comprise the ever-stable ‘elite’, the ‘established middle class’ and their youthful apprentices the ‘new affluent workers’.

What I find very interesting is that the BBC presents these seven classes in a linear hierarchy ordered by economic wealth. This places the NAWs – despite their ‘higher’ cultural practices – below the TMC. The relative placement of these two new classes, and their labels, probably serves the aspirations of both. Is the BBC’s intention to court nouveau riche viewers? Or to validate the ‘emerging’ cultural practices it feeds? They are not far from being the same thing. The BBC does, after all, comprise a significant chunk of Held’s ‘culture industry’.

I enjoyed the excerpt of Held’s book immensely. The concept of a culture industry which serves to anaesthetise the masses is a familiar one. But while the modern mass media are generally fairly repellant, there are exceptions. It’s not simply the case that modern stuff is rubbish and old stuff is good; shit music abounded the 60’s and would have done so in Beethoven’s time as well; it’s just that only the good stuff has stood the test of time. This – longevity – is surely the most reliable criterion for artistic merit, and that is why modern works are easy to write off.

So what of these exceptions? What is it about an artistic work that makes it ‘better’ than others? Barrow & Woods and Helm have made valiant attempts to explain, but I don’t really buy any of it.

When I was training to be a personal fitness instructor we learned about the principle of specificity – if you are training someone to run 100 metres really fast, you don’t get them lifting weights. You get them to run 100 metres really fast, and then again, and again. Therefore it makes sense to me that the best way to teach children to live worthwhile lives (assumption here that this is our raison d’etre) is not to get them reading Shakespeare, but to overtly teach them how to live worthwhile lives. Teach them philosophy. Debate ideas like we are doing here. Sure, stories are a good way of introducing complex human behaviour (I’m thinking The Wave and To Sir with Love – both based on actual events) and philosophical ideas (Pullman’s His Dark Materials), but too much ‘otherness’ can be distracting. The danger is that learners will focus on the unfamiliar language and class differences rather than the message. What none of these writers have recognised – probably because they are all screamingly posh – is that most children will resist or reject stories about kings (Shakespeare) and public-school kids (Lord of the Flies) because they find their modes of interaction alien, and/or their concerns irrelevant. When they are well-rounded, thoughtful, mature, worldly adults – then they may be able to appreciate Shakespeare. What I think is happening here is that people are looking at this correlation arse-about-face and thinking that Shakespeare is the route to producing thoughtful, worldly members of society.

I have seen my own students resisting this kind of ‘otherness’. To deal with that I’ve been experimenting with stratified content; I decide what issue I want them to think about and I give them four or five different types of resource for them to choose from. They can read, consider and respond to whatever they choose: a long academic paper, a shorter case study, a practical how-to guide, a short video or perhaps even just a diagram. What I am noticing is that, while they all claim to have very different academic ability, the quality (depth) of responses – and the understanding being evidenced – is incredibly consistent across the cohort of 75. While the more ‘academic’ writing may be inaccessible at first to some, they can all discuss the ideas and principles at hand together.

It is my concern that the traditional canonical works are selected by the privileged social elite only partly for their artistic merit, and partly for their function in maintaining the status quo. It is clear to me that ‘reproducibility’ as a criterion for high culture is an invention of division. The social elite may be more secure in their own identities, but as a group they fear the uprising of the masses. The internet is allowing the sub-elite to connect more efficiently, but technology can equally be used by those who fear change to control and subdue.

What technology can do is provide another window on these questions of Culture and creativity. Neuroscience is a rapidly developing field; we now have brilliant people like Charles Limb scanning the brains of rap and jazz artists as they improvise. The attempts of the social elite to define artistic merit are interesting from a sociological perspective, but in my opinion they fall far short of answering the actual question.

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