Whenever I see this poster, I am reminded of what we have lost sight of in the English education system. Progressives continually tell themselves that by making learning ‘relevant’ and ‘engaging’ for their students, they are helping to enrich and inspire the minds of young people. This is the biggest lie in education today; the progressive agenda is doing exactly the opposite. By denying children the right to truly great works of literature, we are preventing them from having access to vital cultural capital.
Cultural capital is important for two reasons:
- It enables better language comprehension. Those who know more learn more; those who know less learn less.
- It introduces students to things that are external to their immediate sphere of influence.
E.D. Hirsch’s position on knowledge is that fundamentally, those who have more knowledge learn more, and those who have less knowledge learn less. This is what he refers to as ‘The Matthew Effect’, and is something that I see in action every single day in my classroom. Those who know more, learn more. They can spot patterns and links far more quickly than those who have less knowledge.
For example, the headline ‘mass exodus of Jews from Krakow’ requires several pieces of knowledge in order to be properly understood:
a) The word ‘Jew’ refers to the Jewish people.
b) You need to know at least some basic facts about Jewish people (e.g. Judaism is a religion)
c) The word ‘exodus’ means a mass departure of people.
d) ‘exodus’ also refers to the departure of the Israelites from Egypt.
e) ‘exodus’ is a book in the Torah, the Jewish holy text.
f) ‘Krakow’ is a city in Poland, in Europe.
g) Krakow was home to one of five major ghettos created by the Nazis.
I could go on. There are huge bodies of knowledge underpinning our ideas, even seemingly straightforward ones. This might be the kind of headline a student might be asked to ‘analyse’ in a GCSE English language exam paper. Without any of this knowledge, they won’t have a clue. With some (let’s say they know parts a, b and f) they will be able to provide a fairly rudimentary analysis, but will not be able to provide the levels of analysis that are required for the higher grades. If we continue to teach ‘analysis’ as an outright skill in English, and don’t think carefully about the content we teach, it doesn’t matter how many times they practice it. They will only be able to analyse in depth if their knowledge of the content is good.
Obviously, the scope of this is huge. English teachers cannot be expected to impart such huge bodies of knowledge in the run up to the exam (although it may feel like it sometimes!) This takes years and years to build. Children who have a wider access to cultural capital are invariably miles ahead of their peers.
External to their immediate sphere of influence
We need to challenge students to go beyond what they already know. If they already know lots about football, why bother teaching them about football? Their ability to understand language is necessarily underpinned by what they know; they need to know more in order to understand more. Teaching a ‘relevant’ curriculum, although well intentioned, denies students the access to the knowledge that they need. It traps them within a prison-world of their own narrow horizons. If we instead give them a range of texts that include the canon, we are actively broadening their horizons. Teaching ‘Stone Cold’ is fine (if you really must!), but it will only build a limited amount of cultural capital.
The English curriculum
What is the purpose of teaching English?
We need to ensure we are building cultural capital in our students. This will enable them to have a deeper understanding of the texts they read. It will also teach them about things they don’t already know, therefore giving them larger reservoir of knowledge to draw from and improving their comprehension further.
“For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.”