At the chalkface: Catastrophic notions of Cultural Capital

Written by: Ian Whitwham | Published:
At the chalkface: 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.

Little seems to have changed since the fifties – the 1850s. Matthew Arnold, patrician incarnate, still rules. His prescribed essential knowledge for paupers is Ofsted’s – “the best that has been thought and said”. By whom?


I’m gazing at University Challenge in lockdown solitude. I don’t know why. It makes me homicidal at the best of times. I feel compelled to yell “Caravaggio!” at any question. I’ve not been right yet.

It’s not funny, it’s not clever, but it might improve my fragile mental health.

Packman waves cards at white persons, often male, who have odd haircuts and perch like owls in clothes their mothers might have bought them at 14. They are replete with high culture, with the correct Cultural Capital. They own it. They are Balliol College Oxford, the intellectual cream of the nation.

Their fingers twitch on buzzers.

Next question.

“Popular music”

Ah, my area of expertise.

It’s in three parts.

“Here’s the first”

Sound occurs. Keening, peerless, timeless Appalachian harmonies occur. Bliss. I swoon in recognition.

“Too easy.”

But Balliol are blank. They confer. They are clueless.

“‘Wake Up Little Susie,” you fools, “I hear myself shriek.” The Everly Brothers! Phil and Don! I bunked off to buy it from Percy Prior’s Records in High Wycombe in 1957. I must have played this a trillion times.

Balliol continue to pool their ignorance. They are still blank.

They also fail to identify the Big O and Buddy.

Criminal ignorance.

Where have they been?

“No? Still, it’s not important!” Paxman.

Whoa! What! Not important?

“Yes it is Jeremy! Very important. It’s prime culture.”

But the wrong culture – too low I suppose.

The questions return to the more rarefied.

Balliol clean up.

University Challenge seems a microcosm of all that’s wrong with much of our education. It’s become information retrieval, a glorified pub quiz, a tick-box brand on a Zoom back wall.

I blaspheme at my walls.

Then I chance upon an excellent blog in this very magazine by Phil Beadle. Sane and withering, it demolishes Ofsted’s catastrophic notions of Cultural Capital. It’s narrow, white, male, moribund, class ridden and inaccessible to so many. Its traditionalism is “just stupid people exalting their own stupidity”. It defines “self-interest as disinterest, subjectivity as objectivity, nationalism as religion”.

Little seems to have changed since the fifties – the 1850s. Matthew Arnold, patrician incarnate, still rules. His prescribed essential knowledge for paupers is Ofsted’s – “the best that has been thought and said”. By whom?

I had to suffer this in my grammar school, deliver it as part of Gove’s dread canon and it’s now the right stuff, the alt-right stuff – at a time when “culture” has never had a more dynamic, diverse, gloriously various.

Meanwhile, Oliver Dowden, culture minister and clot (Hons), instructs us to “defend our culture and history from the noisy minority of activists constantly trying to do Britain down”. Teachers are once again demonised as the enemy within.

I gaze back at the screen

Packman is still waving cards.

“Renaissance Artists”

“Caravaggio!!!” I yell.

Ha! Ha! It’s only correct.

The Killer! Caravaggio! King of Chiaroscuro!

“Come on Balliol.”

But they’re still conferring…

  • 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 http://bit.ly/2UIMd1O


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