The Fascist Painting: What is Cultural Capital? by Phil Beadle (2020)

“How many rich kids are there in your Year 10 bottom set?” asks Phil Beadle at one point in The Fascist Painting. He doesn’t need to present a reciprocal question about Eton or other public school. For teachers aware of the social inequities of the school system in the UK, Beadle’s explosive argument about the purposes of state education, drawing on the sociology of Pierre Bourdieu as well as his own experiences as a classroom teacher is incredibly insightful and refreshing. In places it’s challenging – especially when Beadle explains Kantian aesthetics or bluntly dismisses the positive influence of sport in schools – but the value of the book lies in the way it voices an alternative approach. It’s a breath of fresh air for teachers like me who want schools to overcome the hyper-normal mentality that they are politically neutral and that that by focusing everything on the attainment of a handful of GCSE grades we’re somehow contributing to a vague sense of social mobility.

Those who are the poorest, most disadvantaged in society benefit the least from school. For the Right, it’s because these children come from communities where “culture” and “knowledge” are absent supposedly. These children, the Right would argue, lack the desire for self-improvement that’s associated through an advancement of “cultural capital”. It’s no surprise that in neoliberal Britain, the acquisition of “culture” is seen in starkly economic terms. The origins of the current push for the dissemination of “cultural capital” are, as Beadle points out, found in the (ongoing) Govean Revolution that seeks to import the traditions and cultural practices of the dominant monied classes in English society into state schools. (Beadle is far too forgiving here about the influence ED Hirsch has had in my opinion.) By the end of the book – which draws its title from Friedrich’s Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, a painting admired by the Nazis as exemplifying the fascist mindset – it’s clear that Beadle sees “cultural capital” as part of a darkly totalitarian agenda to strengthen ideological control over the working class. To teach oppression.

Using Bourdieu’s concepts of culture and its complex relationship with social structures, Beadle stridently examines the manner that cultural ideas are introduced into state schools. Cultural capital, he points out, is not morally neutral and is rather a means that the ruling ideas of society are legitimised. It’s a “veiled mechanism” through which systemised inequality is perpetuated. Schools and the curriculum play a fundamental role in this. (No wonder politicians like Halfron and Johnson use terms like “signed in blood” and “Big Bang” to insist on a mass return to schools in early March during a pandemic where England suffers the worst record of contagion and death in the world. It’s more than a need to get kids back to school so that parents can get back to work. It’s an awareness that prolonged break from schools is a prolonged break from the dissemination of the ideas and control of their dominant culture.)

Beadle spends the first part of the book reflecting on the origin of the phrase “the best which has been thought or said” and there’s some (perhaps correct) character assassination of Matthew Arnold at play. Beadle refers to T.S. Eliot and Anthony Harrison who present Arnold as second-rate, “insider” and deliberate obfuscator. Beadle notes that Culture and Anarchy, the collection of essays from which the phrase “the best which has been thought and said” is drawn is unreadable (it’s “borderline incomprehensible”). Beadle describes the backdrop of the collection as the “anarchy” of the period leading to the 1867 Reform Act, where urban working class men were given the vote and quotes John Storey’s claims that Arnold believed that “In Short, education would bring to the working class a ‘culture’ that would in turn remove the temptations of trade unionism, political agitation and cheap entertainment. In short, culture would remove popular culture.” Arnoldian culture uses mass education as a means of ensuring working class “subordination, deference and exploitation” and equates cultural power of culture with the power of the state.

Beadle believes – and has argued elsewhere – that those in OFSTED have confused “cultural capital” with “cultural literacy”. He rightly points out that Hirsch’s cultural literacy has been interpreted as a form of cultural recognition rather than rich experience and understanding. His view it that Hirsch tends to see mainstream culture as morally neutral when it is far from the case. Mainstream culture is itself a form of legitimisation where (largely) what is popular is considered good. Beadle is particularly effective at pointing out that it is who chooses the content of the cultural knowledge that is crucial. Beadle treats Hirsch far too gently, even when pointing out where Hirsch misrepresents Bourdieu’s impact on French educational reforms. (The difference between cultural recognition and actual cultural knowledge is valid and we see it for example in practice where knowledge organisers remain required in many schools and used as quizzing for rote learning.)

By using the term cultural capital, OFSTED misunderstands Bourdieu’s “willed oxymoron”, Beadle argues. Pairing “culture” with “capital” Bourdieu draws out the unseen relationships between these two concepts. Beadle views OFSTED as quoting a concept created to satirise what it is they think they mean. Beadle goes on to examine Bourdieu’s concept of “misrecognition” and, further, identifies school as “the chief site of symbolic violence” – a place where ruling ideas are legitimised.

Behind apparently neutral “cultural capital” is the legitimising of qualities that the ruling class want working class children to acquire: “honour, loyalty, allegiance and, above all, obedience”. It’s a culture based on a mindset which believes that what has endured is worthwhile without any analysis of how and why this culture has endured.

Beadle also examines what “culture” actually signifies. For Raymond Williams, “Culture is one of the two or three most complicated words in the English Language.” For Bourdieu it is the “supreme fetish”. Beadle draws on this in order to show how the acquisition of culture is seen as providing means of becoming upwardly mobile. However, in order to mobilise yourself upwardly, you have to submit to the game of culture and the class structure it upholds. I found his explanation of Bourdieu’s concept of “obsequium” clarifying: those at the bottom of the order have a respect of the order deeply programmed into them.

Additionally, Beadle explores the definition of “capital” and how the mainstream, dominant ideology presented by the ruling class, state and mass media is legitimised as being THE only valid ideology and that cultural hegemony is a tool in which to manipulate society’s beliefs. (Perhaps anyone who questions this should ask why anti-capitalist views are now proscribed in English state schools.) Cultural competence itself is a symbol of economic value.

Bourdieu’s concept of Habitus is explained, too. Beadle insists that class heritage does not need to be rewritten to develop habits of self-cultivation. The wealthy can afford to spend the (money) time on self-improvement (embodied cultural capital). He also raises the spectre of the Matthew Effect in culture and states clearly that “Education cannot heal society” or reverse the Matthew Effect of cultural capital. Cultural capital also carries markers of origin.

One of the strengths of The Fascist Painting is in how Beadle shows how the education system reproduces the economic system. He asks a simple question to show this: does your local school have the same prestige as attending one of the great public schools? Elite institutions are filled with confident members of the economic elite. The education system is a “huge classificatory machine” that forms the basis of the social order.

Later in the book Beadle looks at “disinterestedness” as an ideological tool. There’s some incredibly interesting chapters on Art and Music and Beadle shows how the dominant classes establish a denial of the physical world (and, of course, its social realities) through Art. Eventually, he discusses Kantian notions of the sublime and how it manifests in the “pure gaze” (which is itself another ideological mechanism for establishing domination).

Throughout, the Fascist Painting explodes with ideas and incredibly enlightening observations. For instance, Beadle shows how ideas of character education have their origins in the public schools of the rich and today are used to contrast with the need to teach working class children “resilience” (he argues that working class children are already pretty resilient). He’s rightly dismissive of the promotion of so-called social mobility agendas as a “Trojan horse” distracting us from the causes of inequality. He also calls for “Sport should be disentangled from its place in schools”. His arguments about sport seem to me to be sound – but it could be argued that sport, even if you take into account its commodified and nature – brings a great deal of joy to children. Beadle also makes a great deal of sense when explaining why working class children don’t read.

Beadle’s message in the book isn’t to reject and work against “cultural capital” being taught in schools. Instead, it’s how to use the methods and tools of the dominant class’ oppression to reveal the nature of oppression: “What is required is training in the rules of the game”.

Beadle’s vision is that:

“Schools should be about emancipating young people, not teaching them the validity of the blunt instruments that are used to control them. Or is that the real function of school? To introduce you to things that will stop you questioning the things they are introducing you to?”

Simply, the task “is to develop [students’] sympathies with political movements and ideas that aim to help them to lead lives less marked by poverty, inequality and lack of opportunity”. The purpose of education is to reveal the existence of the dominant culture, show the tools of domination so that the working class can use them to defend itself.

Towards the end of the book, Beadle presents his manifesto. It rejects the Kantian (what strikes me more as Nietzchien!) notions of “disinterestedness” that dominates current dominant culture and schooling. Beadle examines the nature of the class nature of “disinterestedness” throughout the book. In terms of the school curriculum, this is what he advocates:

“Here is your manifesto: the arts civilise everyone who has contact with them. What is required is a redrawing and a quiet politicisation of the arts curriculum in which the thinking is more critical and acknowledges that there is no such thing as a ‘view from nowhere’, as well as the introduction of more elements of legitimate culture that do not currently appear in state schools.”

Essentially, the actions of this manifesto would be:

1) respect existing working class culture
2) expand the arts
3) then introduce ruling class culture.

His “cultural curriculum” would be one that essentially uses the structure of The Fascist Painting (this book) as a map. Bourdieu is to be taught, too, though Beadle admits this would likely be a unit in an English or History scheme of work. (There’s a great deal of humour throughout even here where his idealistic remapping of the curriculum is brought down to Earth. He’s a teacher. We’ve all been there.)

There’s a fundamental role for a teacher other than a neutral mechanical conduit of “knowledge” (I guess in the way that teaching’s currently framed in the Rosenshine or Cognitive Load models): “We do this by devoting ourselves and our students to discovering the intentions hidden behind the objects and actions of those who seek to dominate us. We do not succeed in emancipating our students by becoming the dominators ourselves. Cultural capital gives us a fighting chance at giving our students the tools they need for their own fight against the many oppressions and oppressors they will experience in their lives – in time present as much as in time future.”

Beadle’s advice to working class children is a quote from John Lydon: “Get smart, read as much as you can and find out who’s using you.”

Here and there are things Beadle presents that surprised me and seem at odds with the tenor of the book. For instance, Beadle says that he supported Gove’s “toughing up of qualifications”. Beadle believes: “this was long overdue and entirely correct”. Though he acknowledges it comes with its own form of bigotry. Surely an examination system that classifies children so brutally isn’t something to be “toughened up”! Rather, shouldn’t the current exam system be replaced by one in which cramming, private tuition and a place in a grammar or public school doesn’t assist you in getting the best grades (this is aside from the fact that students attending public schools are allowed to take exams accepted by universities that are prohibited for state schools students)? Beadle also commends the teaching of Aristotelian rhetoric and texts like abridged versions of Classical Greek texts as virtues. Aristotelian rhetoric seems to be another guise of approaches like explicitly teaching the fronted adverbial in a formulaic way and, while I’m sure that these scaffolds of discourse can be useful, I don’t think they fundamentally alter the issues with the way English is taught in schools. I’m also hesitant about the use of contemporary (pop) culture in the seemingly uncritical way that Beadle proposes. [I’ve taught poetry paired with pop songs for years but I wouldn’t want to suggest that Stormzy, Beyoncé or Taylor Swift has an equivalent artistry with Shakespeare, Blake or even Matthew Arnold himself.] I’m not even sure teaching Ancient Greek texts is progressive when there’s a greater body of world literature to draw from.

These are minor criticisms of what is a significant educational book.

The Fascist Painting is an explosive and challenging alternative approach to delivering “cultural capital” in schools. It draws attention to the nature of the dominant culture and its role in the legitimisation of social inequality. Beadle offers a manifesto for schools for delivering “cultural capital” in a way that reveals the tools and methods of its use and re-tooling it for the working class.