Cultural capital: an exploration

cultural capital an exploration pic

The following post is a summary of a keynote presentation I gave to open a wider INSET day on closing the gaps at a secondary school in the south west of England. The stated aims of the session was to unpack what cultural capital means and to challenge some of the assumptions about cultural capital  as it is often being deployed in schools.

How do I come to stand before you?

I am not an expert in cultural capital. I do see myself as someone who can challenge and support effectively, and this is my aim with this piece. Many of my experiences, from being the only free school meals child in my class at grammar school, teaching in primary and secondary schools in Jerusalem, returning to work in a start up environment in the UK after 12 years away, I have experienced the dissonance of feeling that my set of cultural norms and values, base knowledge and experiences, even my language and gestures are at odds with the norm. I have also been able to see the patchwork of cultural references and knowledge as useful in my survival toolkit in many situations.

My activism work with The BAMEed Network and lately the Haringey BAME Achievement Group, being Chair of governors at a Tottenham primary school and on a multi-academy trust board in Greenwich has also informed and fed my fascination with this notion of cultural capital.

Who are you?

Mona Chalabi
Picture by Mona Chalabi

Ask yourself: who am I? What do I bring to the table? Why? Where do I get it? What parts am I proud of? What parts are seen as valuable to others and why? Does this change depending on what context you are in at the time? Would you give a different set of responses to colleagues around the table at an INSET day compared with the one you might give to friends over a meal out or at a job interview?

What is cultural capital to you?

In schools we use this term freely, but do we know what it means and where it comes from? What do you think you bring in terms of your cultural capital to the students you teach? Have you built in anything around what they bring to you as a teacher?

What is cultural capital, actually?

Cultural capital definition

In his “Cultural Reproduction and Social Reproduction” (1977), Pierre Bourdieu coined the term Cultural Capital. He was interested in French education system in the 1960s, which saw itself as purely meritocratic – the belief that offering the same opportunities to all students was the same as creating equal opportunities for all students. Bourdieu wanted to explore why, despite this, working class students consistently had worse outcomes than their more privileged peers. This led to his understanding that some students come with a set of culturally valued experiences and prior knowledge which give them access to the curriculum more readily.

The phrase cultural capital refers to the tastes, manners, skills and credentials that are sometimes earned, but more often received from your family environment, are particular to your social class and social interactions with others in daily life. If we accept the notion of cultural capital uncritically, we will be unable to see how inequality is created from the get-go. The cycle is such that if you have the ‘accepted’ cultural capital, you are more likely to have wealth, and if you are wealthy, you are more likely to have greater cultural capital.

According to Bourdieu, cultural capital manifests itself in a number of ways:

The Embodied State – this is the knowledge that is acquired consciously and inherited passively through socialisation, through our culture and tradition. It is not something that can be inherited like physical assets but it is certainly impressed on our character and way of thinking, which in turn leads us to seek out and become more open to similar cultural influences.

The Objectified State – this is how cultural capital manifests itself into material, physical objects such as property that are indicators of social class – for example the clothes you wear, the food you eat, your car, and which can also extend into the way you walk, stand, talk and so on.

The Institutionalised State – this is the way in which society measures social capital – for example doctoral degree has more perceived capital than a expertise in a handicraft or being streetwise. I can’t help wondering which one has more actual worth in time of need – being able to stay alive, or having a high degree of philosophical knowledge.

We know what is valued, but why?

Sorting hat
Picture: the sorting hat from Harry Potter movies

This picture is a great example of differing cultural capital. To me, it is the sorting hat from the Harry Potter movies. To my partner, who although he has a PhD, is an associate professor at a London university,  came to the UK in 2007 and therefore on sighting this in my presentation slides said “oh my, is that a pile of poo?” Our cultural capital differs on the matter of the sorting hat.

If I ask you to do a quick sorting activity, how would you rank the following?

Supermarkets: Lidl, Waitrose, Aldi, Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Morrisons

Universities: The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Berlin University, Harvard, Exeter University, Oxford, Brighton University, Durham University

You can play this game and find out so much about how our minds work, what we are socialised to believe and how assumptions around cultural capital come into play.  Trying this out on a room of over 100 teachers, I saw that they had no problem setting to work on the task. A few asked for more criteria but on the whole we generally agreed that the supermarkets could be ranked on a scale with Lidl and Aldi at one end of the scale and Waitrose at the other. Interestingly, if you compare the same basket of items from Lidl and Waitrose, the costs will be wildly different, but the actual quality and even source of many of the products will be identical or equal in comparison. Go figure.

The same with the university exercise. For many employers, overseas university equals assumed lower quality, unknown, impossible to perceive as valuable to the same degree as a UK one. Many people immigrating to this country with degrees in medicine, teaching, and so on, are told they need to re-qualify without any exploration of what they actually learned on their courses and whether this maps onto the requirements for the job. This can be further divided into racial assumptions – we are happy with teachers from Canada, Australia and New Zealand taking up teaching posts, but if your teaching degree is from Delhi, Cameroon or Nigeria, objections being raised are far more likely.

The Ofsted framework

The Ofsted framework states that no institution can be rated good unless its curriculum gives “all pupils, particularly disadvantaged pupils…the knowledge and cultural capital they need to succeed in life.”

The schools inspection handbook has linked cultural capital to the national curriculum, introduced by Michael Gove, in setting out “the essential knowledge pupils need to be educated citizens, introducing them to the best that has been thought and said”.

The best that has been thought and said. We are judged as schools on this. But do we really understand what it is, and what is the best that has been thought and said? This is a place to pause and think again about the uncritical engagement with the term and concept of cultural capital. This is especially vital as the new framework has such a clear focus on curriculum. We are going to have to make decisive value judgements about what is the best that has been thought and said.  We are going to have to decide what the things are that every child should learn in our school, in each discipline, across the curriculum as a whole.  We are going to have to decide what counts as ‘knowledge’. (If there was ever a time to start understanding the importance of decolonising the curriculum, it is now – more on this later).

What are the things that every child should know?

According to the Civitas thinktank’s English version of ED Hirsch’s work, every child should know the following:

Year 1 Acorns; Brer Rabbit tales; continents; English civil war; jungles; Machu Picchu; Mexico; AA Milne; musical pitch; Henry Moore

Year 2 Tap dancing; Louis Pasteur; rabies; mosques; Hansel and Gretel; Atlantic Ocean; extinct animals and fish; Great Wall of China; dinosaur bones; Roald Amundsen

I have so many questions. How do you define what is essential knowledge? Should you define and dictate what knowledge is before you start? What is culture and what is the cultural capital that is valuable to children in your school? Is your school’s culture different to another school’s culture? How do you define that? What is included and what is excluded? Who decides?

Things that personally slowly dawned on me as someone of Jewish heritage growing up in the UK were things like, ‘how come the only thing we learn about Jews is the Holocaust and Shakespeare’s Shylock?’ Later in life, my own cultural experience of this when compared with Israeli Jewish cultural representation was fascinating. The experience you have of your self-worth as a Jew in Israel is radically different to that of a child growing up Jewish in the UK secular school system. Many of my esteemed colleagues, my own partner and children, all of whom have immigrated to this country often share similar experiences of the dissonance between their learned self-worth and what self-worth they are now afforded by those around them.

Bourdieu’s work should help us to see that compulsory education was created as one big sorting hat, designed to divide along clear lines – sorting the workers from the owners of the means of production and those that are used as the means of production.

What do you notice from just these few topics listed as essential knowledge for children in the early years of their education? There are no women (unless you count Hansel’s sister Gretel of course). To me it seems like the memories of a very specific, white, middle class experience of a 1970s childhood. And who was a child in the 1970s? Well I was, and despite the free school meals status and Jewish heritage, much of this is deliciously familiar and often subtly useful. But more significant is that the people in power and determining education policy now are largely from white, middle class backgrounds firmly rooted in that era either as 1970s parents, 1970s children or the children of those that had 1970s middle class, white, childhoods.

Back to the sorting hat

Let’s relate this concept of cultural capital back to our education system as a whole. What has changed since the industrial revolution?

Let’s acknowledge again that our compulsory education system was designed to be a sorting hat channeling children to be either the owners of the means of production, or the workers earning the wealth for the ruling classes. Therefore, there had to be a dividing line. Not much has changed today. The British education system is the most divisive in the world. Thanks to the education reforms of the last decade, it is now the most fragmented in the world.

Cultural capital and wealth go hand in hand now as much as they did during the industrial revolution. The harsh truth is that 7% of children are privately educated and they hold 94% of all elite jobs (judges, CEOs of FTSE 100 companies, the cabinet). A person from an underprivileged background with a 1st from Oxbridge is not as likely to hold one of these elite jobs as someone who has any class of degree from any university and who is from a privileged background.

Even if we have thought through carefully what is the ‘right’ cultural capital to give our children so they have a fighting chance of the achieving the goals that we see as important to ‘success’, the part of cultural capital which we cannot give young people are networks, the sense of entitlement and the wealth that gives privileged young people a place at the front of the queue. More than this, without a critical examination of cultural capital, and the curriculum, we are constantly communicating to groups of young people that they are not entitled, that their cultural capital is neither culture nor capital. We do this through a myriad of ways.

Loaded terminology

With this in mind, let’s consider what we are portraying to students with some of favourite edu-lingo terminology. We often talk about these buzz words, alongside discussions about gaps for certain groups, cultural capital and curriculum, as if we know what they mean.

Aspiration – is this about financial wealth or is it about aspiring to have the embodied, objectified and institutional states that are deemed worthy?

Mini case- study: a headteacher at a school in coastal Essex told me it took him years to realise that they were labelling students as lacking in aspiration because they preferred to take on apprenticeships with their family members and stay in the same postcode than leave family, guaranteed work, property ownership, good quality of life and education for their children in exchange for a university degree, at a time of the highest post-graduate unemployment rates, £50k debt and isolation from support networks and family. There is no logic to selling this to young people, unless you absolutely believe that gaining the ruling classes’ cultural capital is worth such a huge gamble not only financially but also at the expense of your own cultural,  social and societal values.

Social mobility – this goes hand in hand with aspiration and seems to mean moving away from and turning your back on where you’re from. You can see more about my thoughts on this in one of my first blog posts way back when here

Disengaged – what does this mean? Have you asked students themselves what they need? Do they feel valued as the people who are going to be running the show one day?

Mini case study one: People often get irritated with examples from Finland, so I will temper this with a UK one too! Young people I have heard speaking about their education in Finland see education as a great privilege and see their teachers as preparing them to be the rightful future leaders and shapers of tomorrow. The only time we seem to hear about young people in our country are the jumping-for-joy photographs on results day, derisory articles about them skipping school to moan about the environment, and polar opposite tropes of evil-gang-youth and a snowflake generation. Disengagement might just be a function of self-preservation with messages like these.

Mini case study two: Inspire Partnership MAT is a group of primary schools in areas of high deprivation in SE London and Kent. The Junior Leadership Team is a group of children of all ages that takes an active part in all aspects of school life.  When I met them recently at one school in Medway, we heard about their work looking at feedback and marking across the school. They were able to identify a gap in consistency in one year group’s books and when investigated more closely, it transpired that this was a year group with newly qualified teachers – they realised that these teachers needed a bit more support from the senior leadership team to ensure that the children had more effective feedback and marking. How great is that for showing the children their worth, engaging them and ensuring that they not only are heard, but also understand the intricacies of learning and teaching in its wider context.

Context – No education takes place without context. We desperately need to decolonise our curriculum. We need to question Black History Month vs history which includes Black history in this country every day.  I would also add that while it is of course important for children from diverse backgrounds to see themselves in the curriculum and in the teaching staff, it is vital for white children to see people of colour as holders of power and influence lest we believe the pervading post-colonialist narrative of  what is commonly accepted as “the essential knowledge pupils need to be educated citizens, introducing them to the best that has been thought and said”.

The value of education – That Essex case study says it all. We do need more critical thinking skills from an early age though,  rather than leaping straight to more vocational education as the answer to the students who we see as not understanding “the value of education” as it is first served up to them. We can revisit the streetwise vs. PhD question here again too – which one is more likely to keep you alive? Teenagers always ask how will what I’m learning help me in life? Do we ever discuss with children why they are learning what they learn?

Parental engagement – this is another favourite term when we are thinking about cultural capital and “closing gaps”.  There are some really crude assumptions made around how parents engage in and therefore we assume, value, their children’s education.

Mini case study:  A headteacher of school with 98% Bengali parents once gave a fascinating case study at a NCSL conference that I will never forget. He explained that he and staff were tearing their hair out trying to get parents into the school. It was only when he actually spoke to students about their families, that he understood that their parents would never speak directly to a teacher as this was seen as disrespectful and interfering. They trusted the teachers to educate their children. The bridging from assumptions and cultural bias took a long time, involved careful dialogue, and ensuring that a more suitable method of interaction and involvement was pursued. The headteacher set up an internet cafe at the weekends, where parents could come in and see what their children had been up to via a parent-school communication platform that many schools use to engage parents that are working or otherwise unable to come into school frequently.

Role models – Again, schools often only start thinking about this when we have “students from visibly diverse backgrounds”. But have you considered carefully who are the role models among your staff, the texts you use, your library books, the pictures on the walls. To put it blandly, does your science lab feature all white men on posters? Are all your senior leaders and decision makers from the same kind of background?

It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it

Policies aren’t just pieces of paper – What is valued as cultural capital is communicated beyond the curriculum and it’s important to consider what your policies actually communicate. For example, “extreme hair” policies often class Black children’s hair as extreme for just the way it grows out of their heads. Think carefully about blanket bans on certain styles and cuts or more subtle expectations about what ‘professional’ looks like for staff.

If you have considered what your staff team looks like and discovered that all the powerful positions taken up by white middle class men, do you need to revisit your recruitment policies?

Decolonise the curriculum – We need to go beyond the ‘dead white men’ curriculum choices but also be wary of falling into the trap of thinking you have diversity nailed without seeing that all the diverse texts you have chosen feature people of colour as oppressed, weak, underdogs, deviants or exotic for example.

When and how do you engage with parents? Look carefully at the assumptions you make about so called disengaged parents. Please assume this: ALL parents want the BEST for their children. No-one wants their child to fail or have a bad time at school.

Do you ask parents (and students) what they want, when and how? I have sat through so many parents evenings that are full of acronyms and edu-speak that even to me as an educationalist are impenetrable and serve to distance me from feeling included. For most of us parents, we are happy to trust you with the education of our children if you can respond positively and honestly to the question, “Do you like my child? Do you see their potential?”

Supplementary schools – You can’t do everything, especially in our over-scheduled school day, but one clear way to value cultural capital that is broader than the scope of what school can offer, is to give space, time and honour to typically marginalised experiences by inviting supplementary schools to operate on your premises after hours as part of the educational offer. The knock-on effect can be incredible for your students’ feeling of self-worth, engagement and celebration of cultural capital.

What’s your strategy?  You have to be strategic. Do you have an achievement strategy that is about what YOU are going to change and not about interventions that extend the child’s already extended day? You can see a good example in the Haringey BAME achievement strategy

Over to you

Cultural capital is “the cultural knowledge that serves as currency that helps us navigate culture and alters our experiences and the opportunities available to us”.

What can you take away from this? What will you do next?

 

 

 

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