Cultural Capital

I am no sociologist. I’m not even 100% sure what “cultural capital” means.  But if these terms get bandied around, I wonder if other teachers might think it means the same as I do.  When I hear the two words together I think it means all the stuff that most people would expect you to know or be able to do.  And by “cultural” I guess that would also mean national and regional factors come in to play.  So you would expect someone from Derby to know what a “cob shop” is, but someone from down south might not understand what on earth that could be.  There are national expectations, so you could possibly forgive a French child for not knowing the British National Anthem but you would expect that a British kid would know it.  And there are international expectations, so you would expect every single child in the world to know what a river is (except in Kuwait where there aren’t any). Not all these expectations are true which is why they are “expectations”.  I know there are thousands of children in Britain who don’t know the British National Anthem but really it is something that is expected of every person in the country. Which is why we should teach it – we shouldn’t just expect it to be known.

As far as music goes there are some things that would be expected and some that are around the edges. So I would expect every child to have played an instrument in Primary School but I wouldn’t be so sure that they could play the recorder.  But if you talk to anyone in a school staff room or even outside of education about playing the recorder in school there is normally some sort of recognition that this is something that most people have had a go at.  And I guess this is what is meant by “shared cultural capital”.  Some people would say it isn’t important but I am not so sure.  It’s like being in the staff room where people are talking about TV programs and you can’t take part because you were only allowed to watch the news on the BBC. You can’t be part of the conversation and you feel on the fringes because you just don’t know what everybody else knows.  For example, I went to a boarding school where we had lessons on Saturday mornings. I simply don’t know anything about Saturday morning TV like the majority of my colleagues because there was no possible way I could have watched any.  Of course this is a pretty mundane example and isn’t cross-generational but if you are to engage with people in society then there are a set of inferences that you will be expected to know.  E.D. Hirsch Jnr. talks about the sort of knowledge that would be expected for anyone to understand the majority of a broadsheet newspaper article.  To me that seems quite sensible.  Also, he mentions many idioms and cultural expressions that people should be expected to know; for example, “it’s raining cats and dogs”.  If you are to understand a great wealth of literature then you need to have come into contact with the expectations of writers.  Should we just rely on parents and communities to teach these things or is it also the responsibility of schools?

As far as music goes, what would we expect children from Britain to know?  I’m not taking a local or an international perspective here although much of this would overlap.  I’m talking about the expectations of a journalist of a British broadsheet newspaper.  I think there would be an expectation that we know about instruments, especially the major instruments in a rock band and in an orchestra.  There would be an expectation that we would know the names, instrument families they belong to and some idea of what they sound like.  I think there would be an expectation that we would have played the recorder or know someone who did and there would be an expectation that we would have sung songs in assembly.  The older generations would be expected to know hymns and the younger generation pop songs but everyone would be expected to know who the Beatles were and a handful of their songs.  There would definitely be an expectation that we knew the National Anthem and knew at least twenty well-known nursery rhymes.  On technical terms, broadsheet journalists would expect we know what scales and chords are and probably understand the words “dynamics” and “syncopation”.  I think they would expect us to know a handful of Italian words for the speed of music and the word “tempo”.  They would expect us to know the most famous orchestral pieces of music and who they were written by. They would expect us to know both Mozart and Stormzy but I guess they would also expect we came across Mozart in music lessons but didn’t with Stormzy.  Famous shows referred to by name like “The Sound of Music” and the names of certain musicians would be expected.  I also think there would be an expectation that most readers would know a little about international music – perhaps not as far as knowing the names of samba instruments but definitely the general idea of what samba is and where it comes from.  Interestingly, I don’t think any journalist would expect any readers to have composed any music but I think they would expect people to have some understanding about the feelings that you might have performing in public.

We can’t base our National Curriculum solely on the ideas of journalists but we do need to bear in mind that to be educated is not just a personal thing but a social one too.  And we do have a responsibility as educators not to let the people we educate become socially outcast.  It might not seem like a big deal with music, but if we did this with every subject I am afraid you would end up with a whole generation of young people who don’t know the basics about how the world is, was and could be.

My main worry about music lessons isn’t actually the conversation about what knowledge that children should have. That is a good question but I am afraid we aren’t even at that level in many British Primary Schools.  When you have Year 6 children who don’t know the National Anthem, who don’t know who the Beatles were, who have never picked up a recorder, don’t know at least a dozen instruments by name and think a musical scale is something to do with a dinosaur or a fish then we have a problem. We can’t teach everything and we all know the curriculum has been crowded and teachers are under huge pressure with the foundation subjects but I do worry about the tweet I saw yesterday of a teacher who only realised he hadn’t taught any music in the year when it came to his final end of term reports with an empty box that he needed to fill.  He even said it hadn’t made much of a difference if he taught it or not.  Everything I have mentioned here can be taught by a generalist classroom teacher but I am afraid so much is not happening.  A friend of mine says his son had no music in school but they got away with it by writing a policy that they claimed to follow (which they didn’t) and saying that singing hymns in assembly was “music”.  No music clubs, no instruments, no choir, no performances. Not even a teacher who played piano – everything was the Come and Praise CD.

We really can make a difference but we may need to lower our expectations.  Perhaps composition in Primary is a step too far, as there are too many teachers who don’t feel they have the capacity to teach it.  But let’s make sure that all kids have the opportunity to at least play the recorder or ukulele, sing some Beatles songs, learn the National Anthem and walk into assembly to some varied music from today, yesterday and from around the world.  Because that is something that should be shared from generation to generation – it is expected and it should be taught.