Our research into the ways in which cultural literacy education has been conceptualised within UK policy over the past decade has revealed its role in shaping and promoting a particular vision of the ‘good’ citizen through a neo-liberal communitarian model of governance.
We conducted a systematic review of policy documents relevant to cultural literacy education published between 2007 and 2018. Our review included both documents published by the UK Westminster government, as well as those published by the devolved administrations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
The findings of this review demonstrate that cultural literacy education in the UK has been strongly shaped by the intervention of a neo-liberal economic logic into the cultural education sector. This was evident in the lengths gone to in order to demonstrate the ‘value-added’ that cultural literacy education brings to the economy and society. This is explained in direct terms, with reference to how educational programmes can equip young people with the knowledge and skills they need to fill gaps in creative industry labour markets, and in indirect terms, for example with reference to boosting the health and wellbeing of young people and thus reducing public healthcare costs, and in articulating a vision of culture as an individual pursuit.
It is through these mechanisms that the policies express an aim for cultural literacy education to construct ‘neo-liberal subjects’, responsible for their own choices and capable of self-regulation to become productive contributors to the national economy with little dependence on the state.
The findings also demonstrate that UK policy conceives of cultural literacy education as related to specifically national expressions of culture, and it is through this framing that a communitarian form of governance is also evident from the findings. While policy discusses local cultures to a more limited extent, the primary thrust of focus is on the national culture with scant mention of cultures as they exist internationally or globally. The role of cultural literacy education, then, is taken to be to instil in young people a strong awareness and understanding of national culture as it relates to collective, national identity. To the extent that UK policy refers to inter-cultural learning, this is posited as a means to achieve community cohesion, rather than a means through which to develop global, cosmopolitan outlooks. This nationalist conceptualisation can be understood in light of British policy trends over the course of the early 21st century which have emphasised the need to strengthen national identity as a source of binding sentiment in diverse, multicultural communities.
However, there are also pervasive tensions over the meaning of the ‘national’ as a consequence of the multi-national character of the UK. While in Westminster the focus is on Britain and Britishness, in the sub-nations of the UK the picture is quite different. In Northern Ireland, the focus has been on inter-cultural education to underpin democratic peace, and in Scotland and Wales, greater emphasis is placed on articulating distinct Scottish and Welsh identities over and above a centrally imposed Britishness. The co-existence of these understandings of national identity points to the enduring and unresolved tensions surrounding the meaning of the ‘national’ in the context of British devolution.
In the light of these findings, we argue that cultural literacy education policy in the UK is advancing a ‘neo-liberal communitarian’ understanding of what it means to be a good citizen. This model combines two seemingly contradictory threads: the individualising logics of neo-liberalism which emphasise responsibility and self-regulation, alongside the collective focus of communitarianism on shared culture and values. These threads exist simultaneously in a ‘double helix’ through which they are deployed to responsibilise citizens in order to reduce the perceived burden they present to the state, and to police the nationalist parameters of inclusion and exclusion in diverse contexts.
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About the author
Dr. Katherine Tonkiss is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology and Policy at Aston University. He research explores migration rights, post-nationalism, citizenship and belonging.
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