The work of the Special Interest Group ‘Cultural Literacy and Social Futures’ focuses on recent projects whose aim is to promote social and cultural change in the UK and abroad. The Group’s main output is a series of case studies, based on interviews, discussions, workshops and reports, compiled by Robert Crawshaw, Research Associate at Lancaster University and Consultant to The Missenden Centre www.missendencentre.co.uk . The site also includes reports on workshops and activities as well as features authored by participants.
The selected projects offer examples of ‘creative output’ in specific domains of cultural activity. The outputs of such projects can be described as ‘lenses’ or ‘spotlights’ which enable citizens to understand better how society, politics and culture interact and their own position within their local cultural environment. Such understanding and the engagement which accompanies it can be seen as an expression of ‘cultural literacy’.
The term ‘cultural literacy’ applies equally to artists who act as mediators in the delivery of projects such as the above as well as to external researchers or evaluators for whom the projects are a vehicle for investigating cultural change. For them, ‘cultural literacy’ demands specific bodies of knowledge and methodological expertise.
While the projects chosen as case studies have been selected as models of good practice, most if not all have encountered obstacles which have prevented them from meeting their objectives in full. In emphasizing the projects’ strong points, this site and its accompanying references: feedback from participants, photographs, public statements, promotional material, You-Tube, URL links and so on, explore the reasons why, alongside their notable successes, they may have fallen short.
The site has been designed as a source of information and exchange, including an insight into research methodology: for students and staff in higher education, professionals involved in cultural ‘engagement’ and interested members of the public.
The practice of ‘cultural literacy’ within the terms of reference of this Special Interest Group entails
– promoting the creation, development and application of artefacts which impact on the behavior of communities in society;
– developing the ability to understand and explain the workings of society through the creative artefacts of others;
– the readiness and methodological capability of investigators to conduct research into the relationship between the outputs of creative activities and social change.
The special interest group explicitly challenges the imposition of an ‘a priori’ cultural content as exemplified by Edwin Hirsch’s 1988 definition of cultural literacy: the existence of a body of knowledge which ‘qualifies’ individuals as members of a uniform national community and reinforces their identity accordingly. The same doubts apply to so called ‘citizenship tests’. As a rationale for research, the practice of cultural literacy has to be taken for what it is found to be. Its properties are, by definition, a function of their contexts.
Neither can cultural literacy be adequately understood as a set of top-down, theoretical principles. It is a living phenomenon.
Even positions which respect post-Enlightenment beliefs in tolerance, human rights and democracy run the risk of being branded ‘neo-colonial’ if their political application contradicts the moral grounds on which those beliefs are based. In a ‘post-modern’, post-theoretical environment, even the assumption that cultural literacy by definition ‘improves’ levels of well-being in society cannot be taken for granted. It has to be tested on the ground.
The significance of Value
Artistic practice incorporates a notion of ‘value’ which is both ‘intrinsic’ and ‘instrumental’ , a distinction which informed the Arts and Humanities Research Council of England and Wales (AHRC)’s Cultural Value Project (CVP), comprehensively analysed by Crossick and Kaszynska (2016). As the authors of the report point out, in the absence of a transcendent reference point, cultural value is best defined through empirical observation: case studies. It is assumed that such an approach is the only way in which the problems emanating from the increasing cultural fragmentation in the UK and other western democracies, let alone those in other parts of the world, can be addressed with minimal prejudice.
A contemporary record of what CL means in practice informs the complex value judgements which attend curriculum design and policy making. It also contributes to debates surrounding the relationship between ‘the culture industries’, which interpret cultural value in primarily economic terms, and a view of culture informed by a combination of arts and humanities, science and social theory .
Methodology, theory and practice
Despite the repeated pleas of research councils and independent charitable foundations, much research into culture sponsored by western institutions is still discipline-led: an expression of the academic expertise of investigators and the departments to which they belong. These distinctions have been particularly marked in the difficult relationship between arts and humanities and social and physical sciences. They find expression in the methodological debates surrounding the relative value of quantitative and qualitative data, approaches to the interpretation of technical objects and artefacts and so on.
There is also a residual tension between creative practice itself which by definition constitutes a process of ‘discovery’ or ‘self-realisation’ on the part of individuals and communities and ‘top down’ research criteria which are institutionally and politically pre-determined. ‘Practice-led research’ is still regarded with scepticism by sectors of the academic community, either on the grounds that it is insufficiently theoretically informed or that it is too easily reduced to empirical description. The case studies reviewed on this site explicitly challenge this point of view.
The influence of policy
The promotion of cultural literacy through practice is always economically and ideologically informed. It is variably interpreted in the injunctions of policy, whether those of national governments or of international institutions such as the EU or the UN. Policy is itself a manifestation of culture. Its relationship with the social environments to which it refers needs to be more fully understood.
Key factors condition the training of future researchers and their conditions of employment, the structure and objectives of research funding and the dominant priorities within research-led institutions. University-based research staff need critically to identify the determinants of the research culture within which they operate and to consider projects’ long-term sustainability from a rigorously pragmatic perspective.
An emphasis on education and discourse
Overall, the most important outcome of research into cultural literacy is educational. While schools may not be able to ‘compensate for society’, it is axiomatic that from the cradle onwards, educational infrastructure, curricular constraints, available resources, belief systems and political priorities determine citizens’ skills levels and their capacity for independent thought. The conclusions of the present investigation into cultural literacy are intended to be understood first and foremost in educational terms.
Having said this, it is clear that the development of cultural literacy reaches beyond the mission of educationists. It embraces the existing attitudes, ways of life and patterns of behavior of groups in society marked by their complex interactions in particular physical, social and cultural contexts. These are manifested through embedded discourses reflected in day to day language and in the salient events and artefacts which represent them. Insofar as they take on the function of cultural reference points, they can be understood as ritualistic ‘frames’ in the sense defined most comprehensively by Erwin Goffman as much as in images and writings invested with iconic significance through a combination of creative practices, economic forces and mediatic processes. While inevitably more or less provisional, they attain a transcendent presence which demands attention on the part of participants and observers alike. These are the cultural phenomena which are the critical focus of the projects reviewed.