Common Culture: Diversity and Power in English/drama/media Classrooms: Jonothan Neelands Argues That the Multi-Cultural Classroom Must Give Access to the Culture of Power-That Recognition of Cultural Difference Must Be Accompanied by Redistribution of Cultural Resources

By Neelands, Jonothan | English Drama Media, June 2008 | Go to article overview

Common Culture: Diversity and Power in English/drama/media Classrooms: Jonothan Neelands Argues That the Multi-Cultural Classroom Must Give Access to the Culture of Power-That Recognition of Cultural Difference Must Be Accompanied by Redistribution of Cultural Resources


Neelands, Jonothan, English Drama Media


Five hours of culture

Under the title of Find Your Talent the government has announced its plans to ensure that every child has access to five hours of cultural activity a week (DCMS/DCSF 2007). Interestingly it is assumed that in Key Stage 1-3 there will only be two hours of cultural activity in the curriculum--an hour of music and an hour of art. It is assumed that there is no cultural activity in English classrooms; drama of course does not exist as a cultural subject in its own right. But if poetry, film, drama and literature in school are made invisible, so too are other cultural activities that young people enjoy out of school--football, going to the Mosque, hanging out with your mates, and dancing, for instance. The list of desirable cultural activities includes visits to theatres and galleries, creative writing, music and dance club--the sorts of activities which are the birthright of children of a certain class and home education. This egalitarian desire to encourage all young people to 'enjoy' the cultured pastimes associated with a few is of course a welcome redistribution of cultural resources. But in the DEMOS discussion paper that provides the political rationale for the 'cultural offer' John Holden (2008) suggests:

However, in this Paper, 'culture' is used not in a wide
ethnographic sense, encompassing the creation of meaning
through all of society's practices and symbols; instead it is
used in a more focused sense of culture as a pursuit through
the arts. Here 'the arts' are broadly conceived to include
historic and contemporary arts, 'high art' and popular art,
performing arts, literature and heritage, and arts within and
beyond such institutions as museums and galleries.
(page 10)

This reduction of 'culture' to 'a pursuit through the arts' is of course deeply problematic for the tradition of 'multiculturalism' in both cultural policy and educational practice. If I take a Bangladeshi pupil to the V&A or to the National Portrait Gallery, it will be impossible for such a child to distinguish between culture as 'a pursuit through the arts' and culture as the complex of signs, values, symbols, histories of power and domination, tastes and preferences and other living practices which are also displayed alongside the artefacts and portraits. This simple edit also circumscribes the history of how the word 'culture' became limited to mean the artistic pursuits of a particular class and their 'culture'. Many of the artistic 'activities' described in Find your Talent are already a regular part of the everyday 'culture' of many middle class children of different 'cultures'. To equate the arts with culture is to privilege and naturalise the particular cultural interests of already powerful groups and individuals. It also neutralises the artist as a critic of culture in its widest sense--it removes the arts from the circumstances of everyday life.

Cultural learning

Despite the hollowing effects of a narrow and technicist focus on 'literacy', English/ Drama/Media (EDM) remains a principal site of cultural learning in its widest sense, including through the pursuit of the language arts, for young people. Through making their own stories, poems, dramas, media objects and other forms of representation and in responding to those of others, young people are actively engaged in forging their own private and public, personal and collective identities as well as developing the basic skills of human communication. Through these engagements young people may learn who they are and how they are placed in the world; to see themselves but also to see how others see them.

The idea of a 'multi-cultural' EDM learning space suggests that equal respect and attention will be given to the multiple languages, heritages, traditions of representation and ways of living and believing that constitute a 'multi-cultural' society. Anansi, hip-hop, Sufi stories, traditional stories from around the globe can sit proudly alongside Shakespeare and Phillip Pullman. …

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