Published on 12/11/13
Indeed culture was the focus of a fascinating series of programmes on Radio 4 in the New Year. Chaired by Melvyn Bragg, the concept of culture was subjected to forensic scrutiny. What does culture actually mean? It became clear to me that the culture I enjoy in Cambridge is only one subset of a broader definition of culture; culture is a word which is enmeshed in nuanced connotations. For example, there is high culture and there is culture defined by social anthropology. I was greatly struck by Christopher Frayling’s definition of culture. Interestingly, as former Chair of the Arts Council, he discussed a spectrum of culture, ranging from elite to popular, all of which should be valued. He cited, as an example, a visit he had made to Ireland as Chair of the Arts Council where he was promoting the arts. He was challenged by someone in the audience about the value of popular culture – the specific example given was terrier racing in Dingle, County Kerry which was an integral part of local life. Was not this also valuable to society? Did it not have its place in a hierarchy of culture?
The evolutionary nature of culture is also pertinent. Today the work of the composer Puccini is seen as the preserve of a social elite, whereas contemporaries viewed Puccini as their Andrew Lloyd-Webber. The pop music of the sixties and seventies was viewed as ephemeral at the time but the reverential reaction to a recent single by David Bowie demonstrates how important this music is within our culture.
Whilst listening to the Radio 4 programme, I wondered what culture meant to young people in our schools. If asked what they valued, how would they respond? Given the digital world which envelops them, the potential to personalise their exposure to culture is virtually infinite. In music, they no longer have to purchase an entire album for the tracks they enjoy; they can devise their own unique playlists. Watching films or TV programmes can happen anytime, anywhere as long as you have a digital device. And a young person need never visit a library, that icon of culture, because they can download the books they want to read. This tailored consumerism is arguably creating a kaleidoscope of culture where it is no longer a spectrum shared by many but silos populated by individuals.
Why does this matter? It matters because culture is integral to who we are by any definition. It is now generally agreed, contrary to Matthew Arnold’s view, articulated in his seminal Sheldonian lectures in the mid nineteenth century, that culture does not make us better people in a moral sense. However, John Maynard Keynes’ belief in the capacity of culture to create aspiration is, for me, very compelling. My own life was transformed when at school I was exposed to the arts, offering me a window into a world very different from my own.I feel passionately about how culture in our schools can be transformative. It matters that the curricular life of a school is enriched by the arts. It matters that, through sharing what we value culturally, we lift the ambition of our young people. And it matters more than ever today when the current Secretary of State for Education appears to have a very utilitarian approach, driven seemingly by the current economic climate, rather than an ambition to encourage aspiration to transform the lives of our young people. Functionalism and utility are threatening the capacity of schools to create this vitally important culture of aspiration.
This is the critical point. Last week Christine Gilbert, former Chief Inspector of Ofsted and a co-author of the report commissioned by the Academies Commission, although broadly supportive of academies, was adamant that changing the structure of schools alone will not bring about the changes Michael Gove seeks in our schools. The ethos of a school is what will truly affect the lives of young people. And the school must value culture.