ISJ Spring 2021: Book Review: Phil Beadle, The Fascist Painting: What is Cultural Capital? / James Cambridge
This is a wonderfully indignant book. The author Phil Beadle maintains a generally vexed attitude throughout as he explores the meaning of ‘cultural capital’. In order to understand this, it is necessary to unpack what education in general and schooling in particular are for. Is the intention emancipatory, widening the horizons and opportunities of the leaner? Is it to reproduce social stratification and division of labour, thereby increasing economic and social inequality? Or, most likely in my view, do the activities of schools wittingly or unwittingly attempt the task of reconciling both of these contradictory sets of outcomes simultaneously?
What is a school curriculum? What should be included in the curriculum? Who should decide the content of the curriculum? These are, broadly, the questions addressed by Beadle. The book starts with a critical examination of the Ofsted School Inspection Handbook (Ofsted is the Office for Standards in Education in England) which, quoting Matthew Arnold, proposes that the curriculum should consist of ‘the best that has been thought and said’. Beadle enquires into why Ofsted has selected this particular phrase. He concludes that it represents ‘the importation of a brutish and symbolically violent and completely unexamined public school trope into the language of state schools’ (page 43). This is because Arnold presents ‘ideas of the ruling class as embodying an unarguable universality’ (page 42) which privileges the classical canon while implicitly denigrating other forms of knowledge. Arnold, after all, was interested in education that cultivated ‘character’ in the form of the Christian gentleman.