On cultural capital

In this second in a series of three posts, I look at the concept of cultural capital. This follows my previous post on ignorance in which I argued that challenging ignorance should be a main aim of schooling. Offering cultural capital is a key strand of challenging ignorance and makes it essential that we get it right.

Cultural capital is one of the many new buzzwords of the English education system. It is also one laced with confusion. I’m going to try and avoid repeating David Didau’s excellent post which discusses some of the problems with how we’re currently talking about cultural capital. Instead I’m going to link to the thread of my three posts on challenging ignorance to tackle inequality.

Before I make my argument though, I think it’s worthwhile to state my position which dovetails with what David had to say in his blog:

  • Cultural capital is a concept originated by Pierre Bourdieu, which posits that culturally valuable knowledge is a form of capital like material wealth.
  • Culture should be broadly defined as the ideas which humans have accumulated over time.
  • Cultural capital therefore is not just reading books or going to the theatre or a museum, as vital as those things are. We need to distinguish between cultural capital and ‘being cultured’.
  • Cultural capital should also not be reduced to the checklist-style approach of E.D. Hirsch who coined the dangerously similar-sounding term ‘cultural literacy’ and wrote the obnoxiously subtitled book What Every American Needs To Know. The superficiality of this approach fails to acknowledge the complexity in how certain knowledge comes to be culturally valuable. I argue that a vital part of cultural capital is that students understand why they’re learning it.
  • Due to the socio-economic structures which exist, access to cultural capital tends to reflect what might be termed as social class.

In unpacking exactly how we define cultural capital, an immediate and significant question is how do we decide what is ‘culturally valuable’. I personally don’t get too caught up about this where others see the inherent choices as too political. I appreciate there are a whole manner of problems in how we apportion cultural value. Writing this a week after campaigners tore down the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol due to his involvement in the slave trade, I am not trying to downplay concerns around diversity and representation in how society apportions cultural value.

While undeniably writing this from a position of ‘white privilege’, I don’t feel we should be deterred from embedding cultural capital in our schools and here is my reasoning:

  1. Any curriculum choice is selective and choosing the cultural capital we give students access to in schools is no different. We cannot cover everything and we need to make it clear that we’re not doing so. Students need to be aware of the remaining ‘unknowns’.
  2. We must be explicit with our choices. This is the tricky part. We need to ensure that students understand why they are learning about what they’re learning about. This includes why something is considered valuable. Just as we try to tell students in our subjects why we’re learning about plate tectonics or covalent bonding, students should be given some insight into how society apportions value.
  3. We must allow students to understand that value changes, just as knowledge changes. In geography, we teach about how the theory of plate tectonics emerged over time. This offers an insight not only into how knowledge is made, but how it is challenged. As the Covid-19 pandemic is proving, there is no such thing as ‘the science’. Most knowledge is contested. The way we value things changes over time. We need to try and communicate this to students.
  4. As well as the cultural value which leads to us teaching it, there are three values which are gained by teaching it. First is the educational value in terms of the benefit which students derive from having cultural capital. Like any knowledge, cultural capital is ‘sticky’ and it allows other knowledge to stick to it. So by teaching about a broad canvass of people, places, poems, paintings and processes, we give students a framework to add other knowledge to – it facilitates further learning.
  5. Cultural capital also gives students a social value in terms of allowing them to engage with other people. It offers students the intellectual arsenal to have discussions and understand what is going on with a range of people, in a range of situations. I can recall conversations through my life, at university, in the workplace or in social situations, where the something has come up in conversation which I have little or no knowledge of. This is confidence-sapping. It leads to impostor syndrome. So by ensuring everyone has access to culturally valued knowledge, we are levelling the playing field to avoid people being or feeling excluded.
  6. As a result of this confidence, cultural capital also has a societal value. Cultural capital helps to tackle the ignorance which I wrote about in my last post, which is responsible for inequality being replicated and persisting. By giving students both knowledge and the confidence which that knowledge offers, they will be better placed to engage with society, hopefully in a positive way.

Cultural capital therefore is about enabling all students, regardless of background. For those from disadvantaged backgrounds it should be liberating. Cultural capital is a vital strand of how schools can tackle ignorance and inequality.

In the third and final post in the series, I write about the actual process of learning. For all the work and writing I’ve done on curriculum, powerful knowledge and cultural capital, I am very aware of the challenge of actually getting students to engage: we can’t just focus on the quality of water in the oasis, we have to make sure the horse drinks!

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