At the chalkface: Culture Vultures

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I don’t want to go all Goebbels, but maybe we should just ban the word. Are we talking Matthew Arnold here? Raymond Williams? Levi Strauss? Or raffia work? Train spotting? Brass rubbing? Who knows? He probably means the highbrow stuff peddled by my old gr

The arts, the report continues, are still too much the preserve of a complacent, White, middle class. Well, yes. We’ve been banging on about this for yonks. Who has ever listened?

Well, maybe Ed Miliband. When Labour win the election – and QPR the league and me the Booker and world peace breaks out – he promises to put “creative education at the heart of Labour’s Mission”. Yippee! He told this to something called “Creative Industries Federation”. Dear me. Who they? An oxymoron? “Culture” shouldn’t be so corporate.

And what does he mean by “creative education”? What’s the other kind? And what does the Warwick Commission mean by “culture”?

I don’t want to go all Goebbels, but maybe we should just ban the word. Are we talking Matthew Arnold here? Raymond Williams? Levi Strauss? Or raffia work? Train spotting? Brass rubbing? Who knows? He probably means the highbrow stuff peddled by my old grammar, who told me to “get cultured or else”. This involved enduring the likes of Italian opera, Racine’s tragedies, medieval madrigals – and getting caned for convulsing with helpless mirth. High art was often lost on us.

Fortunately, all is not lost. Despite our exam factories, you can’t keep a good teacher down. Whatever we mean by “culture”, it cannot be quite controlled. The live stuff will just bust through. Whatever we mean by the “arts”, they are often fun, wild, disturbing, inspirational and, yes, life-changing. “A book”, Franz Kafka reminds us, “must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.” Indeed. Arts teachers deal in dangerous magic.

I remember the first time I experienced the likes of Wilkie Collin’s Moonstone or chapter one of Dicken’s Bleak House, or Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Little Richard, Subterranean Homesick Blues, or Goya’s drawings. They’re still my cultural compass. It’s exactly the same today. I’ve seen 6th form pupils blown away by Liz Berry’s Black Country or Zadie Smith’s NW. You can’t snuff this stuff.

So Ed, skip the Creative Industries Federation and talk to actual “arts” teachers. Check their brilliance – the breathtaking Drama lessons, the gobsmacking Dance, the phenomenal Art work. You want real “creativity”? Inclusive and diverse? Check out any English class. You’ll hear voices, which are urgent, necessary, charged, cracked – and too often unacknowledged by our education system.

 

• Ian Whitwham is a former inner city London teacher.


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