Cultural Capital – a discussion to help me think!

Cultural capital is one of the latest watchwords in education. Nearly every new curriculum policy seems to have it in there somewhere, and some schools even have ‘cultural capital time’ set aside for supposedly helping kids get some. It is in this vein, that I’d like to explore this concept and consider some of the questions it raises for schools and teachers. Furthermore, it might also help us understand what Ofsted mean when they say they will consider ‘the extent to which schools are equipping pupils with the knowledge and cultural capital that they need to succeed in life, as in the latest framework.

Firstly, I am taken back to my undergraduate years which featured the work of the sociologist and philosopher, Pierre Bourdieu –principal thinker behind the concept of cultural capital. For me, it was and remains, a very complex idea and certainly not something easily tacked onto a school curriculum policy…but we’ll see.

‘Culture’ itself is a pretty tricky concept to unravel. In its simplest sense you might say it is the way of life that groups and individuals share, ranging from beliefs, customs, ideas and practises that move through generations. We might talk about ‘cultured’ people as those who frequent the opera, visit museums, listen to classical music and have book shelves stacked with classic literature, but is that the cultural capital meant here? It might help to go back and revisit Bourdieu in a little more detail.

Essentially, Bourdieu was interested in how educated social groups in French society used cultural capital as a social strategy to achieve a higher social status. Cultural capital can be divided into three types: embodied, objectified and institutionalised. It might help to delineate these in order to support our understanding of it in more depth.

Institutionalised cultural capital refers to credentials given through institutions of authority such as schools, universities and other official bodies. This includes qualifications, degrees, letters after your names, or even before your name, like Dr or Baroness.  When we obtain this type of capital, we can gain access to more powerful positions using these official credentials. These credentials themselves maybe stratified as the institutions they are associated with are perceived to possess more or less value than others, certainly a first from Oxford tends to open more doors than one from Surrey University (no offence intended).

Objectified cultural capital refers to tangible belongings such as a five series BMW, a house in France and what about a pair Jimmy Choo shoes even? We know that flashing your objectified cultural capital around is often a way people seek to gain entry to more prestigious parts of our society, with varying degrees of success. The black market in fake labelled goods is a sign that people recognise these symbols and their association with forms of power and status.

It’s also worth remembering that all forms of cultural capital can be used to access different social spaces. One might wear and say different things in the pub on a Friday night than when networking at a conference for example. We use the capital we have at different times depending on where we seek status.

Embodied cultural capital includes what we personify as the individual, our skills and understanding, our accents, mannerisms even and importantly, our tastes in all manner of things from music and clothes, to food and TV programmes. This is perhaps why we can often take one look at someone and pop them into a pigeon hole in one fell swoop. We also tend to converge with those possessing similar embodied capital and diverge from those who differ. We are in fact evolutionarily programmed to adhere to a group like this because it increases our chance of survival (even though  rising above our primal instincts is often the way we differ from other animals in terms of human civilisation.) Unchecked however, this instinct serves as a vehicle for social reproduction if those with power and influence favour those in their image.

To my mind, cultural capital acts as the personal currency an individual, knowingly and unknowingly, possesses, Bourdieu called this ‘habitus.’ Importantly, educators need to understand that all children possess their own cultural capital, but according to some thinking that is gaining prevalence, less affluent children often lack the supposed ‘right kind,’ a concept many seem uncomfortable with.

In this way, habitus describes who you are based on your upbringing and the people and situations that have influenced you while growing up. For me, this is surely the place where educators need to tread carefully? We are dealing with who children are, and while curriculum is a course of study for children which can add to their ‘habitus,’ it cannot replace it.

Here’s something to think about:

Cultural capital

E.D. Hirsch suggests, that within society a ‘knowledge and language club’ exists that enables those in the club to get on in society, as when one knows and says the right things, it acts like a back stage pass into higher status and more powerful positions. The idea that schools need to teach children this ‘culturally valuable knowledge and language’ seems to have translated into Ofsted’s idea of ‘equipping’ children with  cultural capital.

Initially, this seems like a good idea; why wouldn’t it be a good idea to teach the stuff that the movers and shakers know about so that more kids can get a leg up?  All kids deserve to know all the important stuff that matters for modern people. I can’t argue with that. As someone who floated through 70s and 80s schooling only to emerge with very little knowledge and understanding about the world, I’m all for teaching ‘the right stuff.’ I really wish I hadn’t been left in the 70s to ‘follow my own learning’ before I knew anything worth knowing, not least because I ended making clay pots a hell of lot, while being unable to add up, spell or name a single planet.

The question some educators then might ask is, whose knowledge and language is it? Are we simply talking about teaching children an accumulation of human thought? Or is it that the ‘best of human thought’ is the best that has been thought by a few key holders to the knowledge and language club, leaving out so much of the best that has been thought by everyone else? Some have suggested this is no more than a domination of the white, male private school curriculum over the rest of society. I agree somewhat, but can you say this about the main theories in science for example, has someone else got better theories there?  History perhaps is different? And anyway, isn’t it better to get into the club, then begin to give it an almighty shake up? Honestly though, I can’t pretend to have answers here.

As schools, we are in the business of, among other things, providing institutionalised cultural capital in the form of qualifications and official awards, yet we know that these can soon become subordinate to embodied capital. In interviews for example, interviewers will often bias themselves towards those with similar embodied cultural capital.

At a party recently, I listened to a friend recount how he’d hired a person that day, not because his CV was brimming with credentials, although he had what was required, but because he liked walking and climbing like my friend did; in fact, they ended up talking about all the outdoor pursuits they both enjoyed. There is always a potential it seems, for people to get the job because they are ‘my type of person.’ Credentials get you through the door, but the embodied capital often does the rest. Maybe, if we were all more educated and aware of our unconscious biases then this would help?

So, what on earth do we as educators do with all this? How can we burst the merry-go-round of privilege that cultural capital seems to create? If it is as complex as it seems, then taking children to museums, reading them Dickens and watching Newsround and Planet Earth isn’t going to crack this, although I’ve no doubt it might help children have a breadth of experience.

We can certainly do our best to give children access to institutionalised cultural capital so they have the credentials to wave about, but as we know, if children only have this without the other forms of embodied capital, places like Oxford are uncomfortable places many young people feel they don’t belong. Thus, places like that largely perpetuate the cycle of privilege and status and our political and judicial system are testament to that. How far then are we suggesting some young people change in order to ‘fit in’?

It is this sense of belonging that matters here. It is what we really need to crack open. The moment any of us feels we don’t belong, if we don’t have the specific cultural capital required for that time and place, then this discomfort has the potential to displace us and we tend to exit to safety.

So, what can we do? Yes, we can and we should offer children many varied and different experiences, but haven’t we always done that? Maybe not? Is this what Ofsted mean? Whatever our curricula have or haven’t provided, isn’t it vital to respond to the very human need for belonging first?  It is, if we accept that learning is as emotional as it is cognitive. We won’t get kids anywhere unless they feel valued for who they are; how can you learn well if you feel you and your life aren’t as good as everyone else’s, but then hasn’t that always been the problem with schools? Still, this is the potential problem with trying to hand out cultural capital like cough syrup. Done badly, it has the potential to send a subtle message to many children that their way of life really isn’t as good. Is this the way we create confident people who can change the world for the better?

In conclusion, if I have really anything to conclude, shouldn’t schools be places where all children’s cultural capital is recognised so that they feel where they come from is valued because it’s part of who they are? ‘So, you’re saying that if the highlight of your day is going to MacDonald’s, this should be valued?’  Mmmm?  What do we say to that?  Well, I know that often how we think about other people’s lives often turns out to be incorrect, mostly because it’s not like our life. Everybody has something going on that’s worth talking about, it just finding the time and space to listen, something schools are often strapped for.

Undoubtedly, it is right to give children open access to all that will be valuable to them, but I’m pretty sure that they will utilise that in a much more meaningful and productive way, if they come at it from a place of solid self-worth to begin with.  How we do this should perhaps be part of that ‘cultural capital bit’ in our curriculum policies, but importantly, in our vigilance for recognising unconscious bias, generalising about groups and types and especially in our understanding that all humans feel the need to be valued and learn more effective when they do.

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