At the chalkface: Get cultured, or else!

Written by: Ian Whitwham | Published:
Former teacher, Ian Whitwham

There seemed to be only two cultures. High, White, posh and patrician. Good. And the rest. Bad. I was force-fed the former for years ‘til it came out of my ears

“Get cultured Whitwham!”

So barked “Chunk” Jones, my French teacher at the RGS High Wycombe. “Get cultured! Don’t be a wide boy, Whitwham!”

“Wide” seemed to connote vulgar, cheap, low, working class, secondary modern.


“Culture! Culture! You’ll never get anywhere without culture!”


What was he on about? What culture? Whose culture? “Racine! Corneille! Bach! Beethoven! Tchaikovsky!”

I was 15. I’d just discovered Rock ‘n’ Roll – Elvis, Little Richard and Chuck Berry. Chuck had different cultural preferences to Chunk. “Roll over Beethoven and tell Tchaikovsky the news!” Go Chuck!

The glorious, pagan racket quite trashed Racine and seemed to be the end of civilisation, as Chunk knew it. But could it also be culture?

No! Apparently not. It was dangerous, ruinous even. “Otherwise Whitwham, you could become a derelict!” Yikes!

There seemed to be only two cultures. High, White, posh and patrician. Good. And the rest. Bad. I was force-fed the former for years ‘til it came out of my ears – muscular Christianity, Caesar’s infinite bloody Gallic wars, military virtues, killing foreigners, and a dead canon. That area. I became promiscuous with opinion, which I finessed for exam success – and have so far escaped dereliction.

What pernicious nonsense! When I taught in a comprehensive we soon junked these numb-skulled binary distinctions.

Bach or the Beatles? Blake or Tupac? Racine or Rock ‘n’ Roll? Racine is great, but not when you’re 15. Any fule knows the difference. They’re doing different things. There are many cultures, especially in the inner city.

Sometimes you do the high stuff and sometimes you don’t. Sometimes the children bring their culture into the classroom. It’s always a two-way street, a contested space. It’s dynamic or dead. For many years teaching was various, rich and thrilling. Then wallop! The dread two cultures crept back. Michael Gove was the prime mover. The buffoon went back to basics. The working class copped it – and just about anyone else.

My grammar school culture returned. “The best that has been thought and said” – well, by dead White men. “The working class need it to succeed in life,” the Great Man condescended.

It was called “Cultural Capital”. Well, it’s just worse, more stringent, more shrunken. Ofsted have another wheeze.

They’ve introduced a “framework” for more “cultural capital” – a compulsory tick-list across subjects.

So what are we in for? Throughout 2020? What delights await my five-year-old granddaughter in her Sisyphean toil through the 12 key stages? Let’s consult the Civitas think-tank. They suggest “10 things every child should know at Key Stage 1.”

Pray what? “Acorns; Brer Rabbit tales; continents; English civil war; jungles; Machu Picchu; Mexico; AA Milne; musical pitch; Henry Moore...” Read that again and resist mirth. Upon what pedagogy can this whimsically random list possibly be predicated?

Why not “tap dancing, rabies and dinosaur bones.” Don’t be daft. That’s Key Stage 2...

  • Ian Whitwham is a teacher of English, now retired, who spent many years working in the state school system of inner city London. He has written for SecEd since 2003. Read his most recent articles at


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