The Importance of Teaching ‘High Culture’

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“As I walk through the valley of the shadow of death” Gangsta’s Paradise: Coolio

“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…” Psalms 23:4 King James’ Version

The other day I was working with some teachers coming to the end of their training, the conversations were rich and rewarding and I have a good deal of faith that they will become great teachers. I was opening up debate by offering some provocations, including saying that it is important to not only teach ‘great’ work but also to help children develop a sense of what ‘great’ might be. Whilst emphasising the subjective nature to these judgements, I was arguing that children need to develop an ability to take part in the conversation and not feel excluded. One ITT suggested that this could occur from popular culture quoting the ‘Coolio’ lyric above. I pointed out that if someone did not know the biblical quote they might not recognise the reference. A biblical reference transcends class and race, and a child who has access to some words from, lets say, the King James Version of the Bible has a rich vein of material they can draw on throughout their life, whether they believe in the Christian God or not.

If I am educated in the works of High Culture my cup runneth over and I dwell in a world in which I can articulate thoughts I wouldn’t even have had if I didn’t know anything about it. I can enter into conversations with people I would have no business even being in the same room as them. I can change my life. I remember as a teenager being snubbed in an Oxford college because I was a mere ‘townie’, not for me the privileged discourse of the ‘gownie’; instead of obsessing about myself… my narrow obsessions… I could’ve thrown that mirror to the floor, and let my image, distorted, scream back at me: “Just learn about what you know, limit your life, and forever hide the inner you…”

If you only know popular culture and the most accessible aspects of it, then what do you know of the world? I’d warrant you’d know a lot but there would be a whole lot more you wouldn’t know. This is where school comes in, there is no point in teaching children what they already know, at school it is the inaccessible that should fascinate us, the downright difficult, the stuff we wouldn’t ordinarily come across or would find difficult to access. The stuff behind heavy oak doors, or in secret gardens. Yes, children might be scared of the things that schooling might put them through but this education can touch and enrich their ‘inner you’. High Culture is looking for recruits, children salute! If this education is only for the rich, or only for the geeks then what do we become? Weirdly bereft of a whole tranche of human knowing, we scatter ourselves around the basement, debased, not wholly aware of what or why we might be. We’re weird.

Weird people from the basement need to climb to the roof; You know the people on the bus and the people on the street people like you and the people like me! Weird people! Geeks! Whoever! People like you and me. A little mix of high culture with our lived lives enriches us, it expands us, it opens up possibilities. By denying high culture on the grounds of class, or any other, demeans the person denying that knowledge to others, because they ‘know’ of it but decide not to tell. In whose interests is it to not teach children the supreme works of humanity?

Then I hear the refrain: “But who is to say they are the supreme works?” And with that quip ‘high’ culture is dismissed; easily ignored and hated as elitist it becomes ever more elitist by denying it to our children. In the basement they can dream of climbing to the roof, but they know it’s not for the likes of them and the effort might be too much on their own. If only a great teacher would sing: “But it don’t matter who you are, you can be who you wanna be,” with an education that sees no reason not to teach great works a child can be comforted in the knowledge that can restoreth their soul.

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21 thoughts on “The Importance of Teaching ‘High Culture’

  1. Brian

    For me the issue is that you wish to perpetuate the pompous elitist nonsense of the rich rather than disposing of it.

    I don’t see anything intrinsically valuable in high culture and in fact if we called it low culture maybe it wouldnt be so popular with the rich either. Why would you wish to encourage the few to rise to the “roof” as you describe it.

    What you see as the roof, I see as the basement. We need to get rid of social class not perpetuate it.

    The idea that kids should learn quotes and lessons from the King James bible is absurd to me. There are many more thinkers and quotes which exist in the context of the 21st century not the 1st century.

    Although I agree in principle with much of the trivium, I can see no need whatsoever for high culture these days. You seem to have a faith in high culture somewhat like that which christians show for jesus and the bible

    You will be telling me next that dressing up in silly costumes and banging on the door is a good way to open parliament. Simply makes the British a laughing stock elsewhere.

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      1. rludovicus

        Even though you might be right, this is a rather snobbish reply on Brian’s comment. Simply isolates the culturally aware people from people like Brian who focus on “relevance”.
        But how could high-culture topics and issues NOT be relevant today.
        Take a look around the world and behold the consequences of history repeating itself because people in general and politicians in particular focus on “relevance” and did not learn the lessons of the past.

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      2. rludovicus

        I mean that assuming Brian’s lack of cultural breadth is snobbish and reinforces Brian’s prejudice against high culture.
        I fully agree that knowledge about so-called high culture enables ALL people to – as you might put it – climb from the basement to the roof and is thus highly egalitarian and the only way to overcome class structures.
        By the way, the horizon from the roof is much wider than from the basement. 🙂

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      3. rludovicus

        There is highly intelligent popular culture. Just because it is “popular” it doesn’t have to be necessarily stupid, low-culture or “common”.
        p.s.: I’m enjoying this conversation very much, but I’m actually trying to grade Latin tests on Martial and Catullus. 🙂

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      4. rludovicus

        My wife used to say : “We’re (actually she only meant herself) the only “normal” people on the whole planet.” I’m inclined to believe her, but it is just a matter of perspective.
        Teaching is a great way to confront students with high culture. This encounter is necessary because without having experienced greatness you cannot grasp the idea of it and won’t recognize any greatness.

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  2. David

    Hi Martin–I agree that we have to teach a core of classical authors, otherwise our student will not be able to grasp the context of so much of modern literature, even more popular works.

    This rather gets into an issue, however, of what is to be taught and what is to be excluded. Should students only be taught the Western canon or should they be exposed to a smattering of global works? Teaching the former thoroughly leads to the accusation that one is fomenting a Huntington-esque “Clash of Civilizations”, while others accuse the latter of creating rootless vagabonds on the wine dark sea.

    Your first commenter provides an example of the drumbeat of “relevence” and “21st century”, seeming to suggest that presentism should drive education. Yet, this appears to ignore the importance of teachers as transmitters of knowledge and (dare I say it) culture from one generation to the next.

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  3. pleasetakemetoday

    A few random comments from my phone. I’m not near a laptop. I enjoyed reading this blog.
    Reminds me of a Stephen Fry quote about going into an Oxbridge common room and one of the Dons saying, “Don’t try to be clever old boy. We’re all clever here. Only try to be a little kind. Just be kind.”
    I know lots of biblical references from assemblies at school. I like Shadrac, Meshach and Abednego best, and have even met a real live Meshach He was astonished that I knew where his name comes from.
    I know a bit about art because I have been interested and have picked up a thing or two. I was not taught a an iota about art at school.
    It is a rule of thumb that people’s general knowledge increases as they get older.
    But, here’s my main point: in today’s climate you must make a list. List all the cultural references, high or otherwise – many children now do not ‘get’ references even to Cinderella or Jack and the Beanstalk because someone was bored with them and found other fish to fry – make a list and blog it. People will thank you and will go off and teach your list. No need to study the high culture books or the bible. Cut out the middle woman and just teach a list.

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    1. l4l1

      These lists usually end up becoming endlessly extensible and every attempt to formulate one ends up with people pointing out what is missing.

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  4. Pingback: High Culture, David Bowie and a Low Symphony | Music Education Now

  5. LJ Radick

    Hello Martin, thank you for your blog.

    1. Thank you for the story about being an Oxford townie. I think all our views come from our own life stories so sharing your story is honest. The story reminded me it was time to reread Jude the Obscure so you have done me a service. Might you be a bit of a Jude here though? Just a thought.

    2.”A biblical reference transcends class and race,”
    It most certainly doesn’t. I think this is what the Marxists would call a hegemony? Where you become blind to your own partialities because you associate them with power and therefore consider them universal? Or maybe that is the wrong word – someone else will tell me I hope.

    3.As to Coolio, I think the ideal is to hear Coolio without footnotes, study the bible separately and have life-opportunities to join the dots – say as an undergraduate? We don’t want to force-feed footnotes to kids though or that will make both seem dry.

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