“The Fascist Painting – What is Cultural Capital?” reviewed.

Phil Beadle’s latest book is a must-read for anyone serious about going beyond OFSTED’s hopeless misunderstanding of cultural capital and its place in the curriculum

Phil Beadle’s latest book is a timely contribution to the current debate about cultural capital and its place in UK schools. It’s not a wishy-washy dispassionate overview of the terrain, with practical suggestions for how overworked school leaders can get that OFSTED box ticked, thank goodness. I was amused when reading it at the thought that some people may have bought it expecting just that, scrolling through edu-books on Twitter and Amazon, desperately looking for inspiration in advance of writing the proposal for SLT the next day. Anyone who does mistakenly buy it thinking they were about to get a how-to guide to cultural capital is in for a shock. It’s too much to hope, I suppose, that anyone in that situation would actually pause to consider whether the pursuit of cultural capital provision in school was worth a candle, but it’s a nice thought nonetheless. I’ve been there myself. You are charged with rolling out an initiative that you have real misgivings about, but your half-hearted, timorously voiced objections are steamrollered, and the institutional imperative takes over. Careers are built on championing the new, fashioning current buzzwords into practical and procedural systems. And jobs are lost, or opportunities missed, for anyone who is lukewarm. The only show in town these days is evangelical zeal, so reluctant turd polishing is not enough. The turd must be buffed with pride and passion.

If you are an agnostic, or you are a fully paid up member of the non-believer wing of the profession (sometimes referred to as “Progs”) you’ll find much to admire and enjoy in this book. It comprehensively demolishes the nonsense that is OFSTED’s understanding of cultural capital, and along the way many of the other sacred cows of The New Brutalists (I particularly enjoyed the withering critique of Doug Lemov’s ideas in general and SLANT in particular. This will almost immediately cause sceptical readers devoted to “Teach Like a Champion” to harrumph, stop reading and unfollow, but woah there! Take a breath.  As Educationalists, let’s at least give ideas we don’t like an airing and disagree politely. No need for no-platforming here)

In OFSTED’s view, cultural capital is what working class kids lack. Familiarity with “the best that has been thought and said” becomes an inspectable thread in schools’ provision and so schools are scrambling around trying to design a crash course in high culture. Beadle, with his scalpel- like analysis, shows that the adoption of the ideas of Matthew Arnold, are simply yet another incarnation of the rubbishing of working class culture as second class and inauthentic. It is an unquestioning espousal of ideas rooted in a racist, violent, homophobic and upper class superiority, all transmitted from generation to generation via model public schools, right down to Mr Michael Gove. These are the views, courtesy of Mr Gove (assisted by the lovely Dominic) and the last ten years of Tory Government, that have left teachers and students with a barren educational wasteland to inhabit, a world where students are subjected to a coercive and joyless trudge through a slurry of facts. It would be a disservice to Beadle to leave the impression that all it amounts to is Dave Spart class warrior polemics. That’s the tone of my review, but not of the book.

First and foremost, this is a scholarly work, built on a rock solid foundation of sociological theory and analysis. Beadle is a clever guy and a very good writer who has bothered to do the work. He’s read Phillipe Bourdieu extensively and it shows. Each chapter is shored up with a mountain of foot notes. But interestingly, the foot notes reveal the dichotomy at the heart of the book ( and the author, I suspect) Because as well as showing the scholarly heft of the work, they are also very funny. Beadle doesn’t take himself too seriously. He is self-deprecating, sarcastic and barbed by turns. But every time you think the book is going to descend into a political piss-take (welcome and justified though that would be) he then veers back into serious academic and pedagogic considerations.

In that sense, the book takes no prisoners. It makes a lot of demands on the reader. Some of the sociological stuff is heavy duty Marxism and can be like wading through treacle at times, but it’s worth persisting with that, because it’s always leavened by an anecdote or a well-chosen, apposite cultural comparison. My take on this was that, whenever the book got to be hard going, well, that was my fault not Beadle’s. Ultimately, it’s refreshing to read a book where the author pays you the respect of treating you seriously as a sentient, intelligent adult. The idea of persistence is important in the context of resilience, another fashionable shibboleth that Beadle examines. He is at his best when skewering the idea that a teenager from a single parent family in temporary accommodation, using food banks and with no access to IT, a quiet space or books might benefit from “Resilience Lessons”. Patronising doesn’t even begin to cover it.

The same thought comes to mind when thinking about giving the same kid a dollop of High Culture at discrete weekly sessions (the whole year group in the hall in front of a powerpoint and a harassed member of SLT, no doubt). It’s like a teaspoon of cod liver oil on your bowl of thin gruel doled out by do-gooder in the workhouse. This is another strength of Beadle’s analysis – his reclamation of the idea that working class culture is real and vibrant and powerful. It’s not second class, a pale substitute for the real thing. It is the real thing. These children do not need to know about Mozart or Shakespeare or the latest Stoppard so that they can hold an intelligent conversation at a posh dinner in the West End with rich clients (I think that was the gist of a recent tweet on cultural capital from Ms Birbalsingh). They need to know about Mozart and Shakespeare and Stoppard because they are good and interesting and make life a little bit more worth living. Just like the other cultural products that they consume.

And this is where Beadle’s book turns from being interesting and thought provoking into being useful and inspiring. At the end, he addresses the notion of what schools could usefully do in terms of promoting culture. He affirms the positive value to individuals of experiencing all forms of truth and beauty, and puts forward the idea of a programme of cultural experience woven into the everyday life of schools. Culture, in this programme, is all forms of culture not just the upper class approved versions of high culture. Teaching high and low together in a dialectical comparison would produce a synergy of deeper understanding. Integral to his approach would be the explicit teaching of the provenance of cultural artefacts. Where are they from? Who are they produced by, how and why? How are they perceived?  All of these are powerful questions that illuminate and empower. So far from rejecting high culture as belonging to the rich and powerful and privileged, he reasserts its value and leaves the reader with a genuinely exciting idea of a curriculum entirely designed around culture. So, duh, of course it’s not Stormzy or Mozart, it’s Stormzy and Mozart, and much , much more.

No doubt the defenders of traditional approaches to culture will be up in arms at this pinko threat to standards, but that is the ultimate proof that Beadle is genuinely on to something here. Whether you agree with its thesis or not, this is a great book that deserves to be widely read, and you may enjoy being outraged. Give it a go – all you have to lose is your prejudices. You can buy it using the link below.

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