Sliding further into the red

12th April 2013 at 01:00

The term "cultural capital" has been bandied around a lot recently. It refers to a content-driven curriculum full of Dickens, Shakespeare and Ars grammatica, as opposed to the sort of lessons the government thinks we deliver based on Jaws 3, Men in Black and the Die Hard canon.

Worryingly, it's not just the government's edu-henchmen who are promulgating this newspeak term. Wherever you look on Twitter, flocks of teachers are re-bleating "Shakespeare good; media bad" and posting links to servile blogs where they lick Othello's arsehole and apotheosise sonnets. Unless you use it to model persistence or teach Homeric epithets, it seems that "Yippee ki-yay, motherfucker" has finally had its day.

The notion that culture can be seen as "capital" is particularly disturbing. As an Oxfam report pointed out last year, the UK is "one of the most unequal rich countries". So the idea that literature is a form of "capital" is a worrying new development. Children from lower-income families stand as much chance of profiting from Dryden and Pope as their parents do of having tea with the Queen. Culture requires a sophisticated palate and it can take a university-educated mummy and daddy to help nurture that refined taste.

Setting such high challenge in schools can be socially divisive. As Voltaire (and @RealGeoffBarton) reminds us, "The comfort of the rich depends upon an abundant supply of the poor", and certainly this government secures choice for some by picking it from the pockets of the penniless. Take the Welfare Reform Act's new voucher scheme. While the rest of us are throwing money at herbal teas, walnut breads and 27 types of olives, the most vulnerable have had their shopping choices removed. They are now given "food stamps" to prevent them from inadvertently pissing their bairns' breakfasts up the wall. Worryingly, even some of the "good guys" are convinced by the illusion of free will. A couple of weeks ago, a Guardian columnist defended his "sharp-shouldered middle-class" determination to send his daughter to an oversubscribed free school, claiming that there was nothing to stop the working classes from "nagging and badgering" to achieve the same, and that "everyone is free to make an effort for their child". If only.

This removal of choice is a terrible thing. When my own kids were toddlers, my husband was made redundant and we survived for two years on the dole. A portion of our benefit was made up of milk tokens. On my husband's birthday, I added beer to my shopping. The woman at the Co-op waved the milk tokens under my nose and berated me in front of a shop full of customers for being on benefits and buying booze.

We want the poor to subsist; anything more is intolerable. And the government's new welfare initiatives send this message out loud and clear: it's the Sky-dish-owning underclass not the baby-eating bankers who dragged this country to its knees.

Whether it's through offering benefits in kind or divesting the poor of their bedrooms, the withdrawal of personal freedom widens the gulf between rich and poor. Even in schools, we place kids on a sliding scale of determinism versus free will. Top sets are given options while bottom sets are told what to write. And when we invest in "cultural capital" their only option will be to sink further into the red.

Anne Thrope (Ms) is a secondary teacher in the North of England. @AnnethropeMs.

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