High culture versus pop culture: which is best for engaging students?

First published by the Guardian on 20 February 2013.

“A high culture is the self-consciousness of a society”, Roger Scruton wrote last year in the Guardian. “It contains the works of art, literature, scholarship and philosophy that establish a shared frame of reference among educated people.”

As a teacher, the last part of this statement interested me because one of the aims of schools should be nurturing “educated people”. Importantly for Scruton, an absence of “high culture is superseded by a culture of fake”. This ‘culture of fake’ consists of many things, including false ideologies, opinions and expertise, but unfortunately for me, Scruton did not really identify what a ‘low culture’ could be.

In terms of teaching, learning and the curriculum, my dilemma is relatively simple, but not trivial; should I endeavour to reference high culture in my lessons so that students can appreciate cultural life at its finest, or, in order to engage students and make learning enjoyable, should I litter my lessons with references what might be perceived as low culture, which is probably best defined as ‘pop culture’in the context of young people.

Pop culture would include just that; culture which 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.

To help get my head round this, I turned to the philosophical debate between high order and low order pleasures to see if I am genuinely in the business of creating ‘educated people’ or simply dumbing down the curriculum.

Moreover, this distinction is central to AS religious studies lessons I have taught on the moral philosophy of both Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. For Jeremy Bentham the approach to engaging and enjoyable lessons could be through referencing pop culture and thereby making learning more pleasurable. Bentham’s basic idea is that pleasure is good in and of itself and that increasing pleasure is the right thing to do. In contrast, Mill argues that higher order pleasures are superior. This based on his consequential view that deferred gratification of pleasure will benefit the individual in the long run, as they will develop an appreciation of the finer things in life, such as poetry and classical music; what Scruton deems ‘high culture’.

Mill and Scruton cannot be dismissed as academic snobs, as there is plenty of research on the positive effects of high culture and what is often termed ‘cultural capital’ on educational achievement, which is even recognised, albeit critically, by Marxist sociologists.

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 staid RE 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.

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’. There is arguably a creeping elitism among some policy makers concerned with education, but 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.

Photo credit: Rodrigo Ferrari  (Creative Commons 2.0)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s