D J Taylor: Youth needs to look up to a higher plane

Schoolchildren can easily have a cultural life. We just have to drop fees and charges

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Not even the most fanatic supporter of the present Government could claim that the list of its cultural achievements would extend very much beyond the back of a small postcard. The last Prime Minister's idea of "culture" was glad-handing at Number Ten with Noel Gallagher and Sir Elton John. The last but one Culture Secretary spent her time agitating for the introduction of jumbo-sized slot-machine parlours in our coastal towns. If one wanted a symbol of this routine indifference to what was happening on the printed page or on the gallery wall, it could be found in the official reaction to the news, in 2001, that Sir Vidia Naipaul had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. There was none, the problem being, as discreet journalistic enquiry to Downing Street revealed, that no one on the premises appeared to know who he was.

And now, as a searing counterblast to all these years of low-level philistinism, comes the news that the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, in the person of its incoming Secretary of State, Andy Burnham, is planning to bring five weekly hours of "high-quality culture" to the nation's schoolchildren. Detailed information is a touch lacking, but the initiatives mentioned include visits to galleries and museums, theatre trips, workshops and all that interactive, participative stuff of which the modern cultural round commonly consists.

Reaction from the teaching profession – that pale, exhausted body, tremulous from the weight of government schemes lashed to its shoulders in recent years – has been entirely foreseeable: a jolly good idea, in principle, but where, in a curriculum already stretched to breaking point with statutory requirements, is the time to come from? Not to mention the money (£15 per head has been mentioned, which sounds under-budgeted.) Elsewhere, one or two highbrow commentators have recoiled in fastidious horror from the thought of all those hitherto silent museum galleries now laid waste by hordes of clipboard-wielding tinies while the rest of us try to get on with the serious business of art appreciation.

Given the amount of money required to get this scheme on the road and given the scepticism of the teachers booked to administer it, one can only assume that this is a gesture: an inspired and well-meant gesture, but not a very practical one. All the same, Mr Burnham and his chiefs ought to be applauded for making it, as it demonstrates an awareness that large numbers of British citizens are detached from the cultural loop to the point of outright separation.

They long ago cut free from the old givens of being able to recognise famous paintings or characters in Dickens and Shakespeare and has begun to make its presence felt in what used to be ordinary general knowledge. I was amused to discover, for example, that the row about Woolworths flogging "Lolita" beds for pre-teenage girls derived from simple ignorance. Rather like the Prime Minister's private office with V S Naipaul, no one at Woolworths had heard of Nabokov or his most famous creation.

At the heart of the Burnham proposals, too, is something that in the current intellectual climate looks like a piece of dangerous radicalism. This is the idea that, pace Professor John Carey, who wrote a whole book ( What Good Are the Arts?) maintaining that the profession to which he had devoted his adult life was a waste of time, exposure to medium to high-level culture is good for you. It might not make you a "better person" in the sense of enjoining moral salubrity – the SS officer who went home in the evenings to listen to Schubert is one of the great modern clichés – but at the very least it will give you an idea of the context in which, as a human being with a past and a heritage, you operate. As a child, I spent long hours in Norwich Castle Museum, brooding over the cases of stuffed mammals and the Anglo-Saxon dioramas (now gone, of course – they weren't interactive enough) and dropping pennies down the well in the keep. All this realised a little treasure trove of local lore and information that has kept me going imaginatively for the best part of 40 years.

The notion that culture is good for you, in however modest a sense; that it ought to be maximally accessible; that anybody can gain something from it (this in an age where even Wayne Rooney's plan to acquire a GCSE or two is a source of inexhaustible mirth to the tabloids) – all these assumptions can be found lurking behind the Government's scheme and it would be wrong to take issue with any of them. What one can take issue with is the way they are being marketed and some of the assumptions that underlie them.

Significantly, Mr Burnham couldn't just talk about giving children whose main cultural diet is EastEnders a chance to go to the theatre; he was determined to offer them "high-quality culture" or even "high culture". And here, however unwittingly, he was contributing to one of the great difficulties that cultural paladins always experience when trying to widen the take-up of what they have on offer: the series of demarcations which surround "high-quality culture". Go to a classical concert, a Shakespeare play or a performance of Don Giovanni and immediately, however informally staged or welcoming the atmosphere, you are likely to be surrounded by a series of rituals whose general effect is to reduce anyone new to the game to a state of bewildered terror. I can remember at the age of 11 or 12 being taken by my parents to a philharmonic concert, and some beak-nosed old lady in an evening dress bending down glacially to enquire: "And is this your first concert?" "Yes" I quavered back, privately resolving that it would be the last one as well.

Although you might not have noticed it, there is currently an anguished debate going on about the death of what is known as "literary culture", here defined as the old world of generally accepted standards passed down via the critics of weekly magazines and Sunday newspapers, now retreating before the onslaught of Richard and Judy and the book groups whose members only care about their ability to "identify" with the male or female lead. Not long back I found myself reviewing James Wood's new book, How Fiction Works. Mr Wood is a highly distinguished critic and a treat to read, and yet his idea of literary culture seems to be a kind of hushed lecture hall filled with readers of the New York Review of Books, where everyone thinks Henry James is wonderful and the clangour of the world beyond the window scarcely registers.

All this may seem rather a long distance from Andy Burnham's plan to lead the nation's schoolchildren in respectful file around the Tate Modern for five hours a week, but it is part of the same problem. Culture, whether "high-quality" or even just "high", need not be exclusive, but it will only lose its air of almost sepulchral apartness if it also abandons some of its self-consciousness. Rather than ordering children into galleries, consequently, the Government would be much better off taking practical steps to encourage public access to culture – lowering or abolishing entrance fees, distributing free tickets, ending (via subsidy) the iniquitous practice of charging people money to get into cathedrals. Ironically enough, Mr Burnham's proposals followed noisily in the wake of last month's round of Arts Council cuts, where the chief victims were touring companies bringing drama to theatre- goers in rural areas – precisely the kind of people whom the state ought to be helping towards "culture" and are now, through the agents of the state, being denied it.

The Government is earmarking £15 a head to turn children on to 'high culture'. Can it be done? And is it money well spent? To have your say on this or any other issue visit www.independent.co.uk/IoSblogs

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