“A high culture is the self-consciousness of a society”, the philosopher Roger Scruton wrote a few years ago in the Guardian newspaper. “It contains the works of art, literature, scholarship and philosophy that establish a shared frame of reference among educated people.”
As a teacher at Goffs, the last part of this statement interested me because one of the aims of our school should be nurturing “educated people”.
Nonetheless, in terms of teaching, learning and the curriculum, our dilemma is relatively simple, but not trivial; should we endeavour to reference high culture in our lessons so that our students can appreciate cultural life at its finest, or, in order to engage students and make learning enjoyable, should we litter our lessons with references to what might be perceived as low culture, which is probably best defined as ‘pop culture’ in the context of young people.
Pop culture would probably appeal to most students more as it is culture that is popular, easy to understand and entertaining to the majority of young people. For example, pop music, romantic Hollywood comedies and soap operas. High culture, on the other hand, may include renaissance art, classical music and opera. The latter is arguably more sophisticated, intellectually challenging and intrinsically rewarding.
However, if I am to add ‘educated people’ to society, can I really do it through referencing and advocating fine art, poetry, classical music and opera, or will this just switch the students off?
I feel that the infusion of pop culture into RS lessons has brought the subject alive and made it more relevant. For instance, my lessons have incorporated music from Alicia Keyes (Karma), a unit on medical ethics included readings and clips from My Sister’s Keeper (saviour siblings) and Weird Al’s I Think I’m a Clone Now (genetic engineering), and lessons on wealth and poverty have included games based around Supermarket Sweep in order to assess how altruistic students really are, if given the opportunity to grab what they want.
Relating Christianity to pop culture may be more fruitful, especially as Christianity is evident in hip-hop (Kanye West’s Jesus Walks, for example), novels, such as the Da Vinci Code, and followed by a host of celebrities.
Other subjects have used pop culture in similar ways. Pop music is often used in PE to settle students, I have observed English lessons where social networking sites, such as twitter, have been used to frame questions related to news items and history have used rap to teach about historical figures.
Of course, it is possible to unite the two categories of culture. My colleagues and I have planned lessons on heaven and hell that mixed clips from Tom and Jerry with Gustave Doré’s illustrations of Dante’s Divine Comedy. Furthermore, lessons on the suffering include the literature from Elie Wiese and the paintings of Francisco Goya. And, essentially, there are multiple references to the King James Bible.
Despite these generous dollops of high culture, I would not dismiss the effectiveness of pop culture or, rather, low culture in the development of ‘educated people’. Although Roger Scruton may disagree, it is worth remembering that “a shared frame of reference” often centres on what is popular, and accessing it, even celebrating it, is a good way to initially engage learners.