What to know: the importance of cultural capital

Let’s face it, we need to know to stuff if we’re going to have anything resembling a successful life. But what is it we need to know? As an English teacher I have a fair bit of fairly arcane knowledge that few others outside my profession and subject specialism would see as useful. Doctors know all kinds of stuff, and they save lives. Surely everything they know is vitally important? Well, if it is I’ve muddled along without knowing the vast majority of it. The same goes for anyone from green grocers to figure skaters to lion tamers: the knowledge we have is, largely, only important to us.

But what about cultural capital? The idea that some knowledge is important for everyone to know? Pierre Bourdieu extended the idea of capital to encompass knowledge of culture. He argued that while we all occupy a position within society, we are not defined only by membership of a social class. More important is the ‘capital’ we can amass through social relations. Needless to say, this can, and often does, result in inequality.

I read this today on Daisy Christodoulou’s blog;

The sort of ‘cultural capital’ I am talking about is not some kind of elitist scam designed to protect access to institutions. Correct spelling, punctuation and grammar have value because they allow people to communicate clearly. Shakespeare’s plays have value because they display great insight into the human condition. Trigonometry has value because it allows us to construct buildings which don’t collapse. The germ theory of disease has value because it allows us to cure terrible illnesses. These categories of knowledge have value because they are valuable. Other categories of knowledge are less valuable.

Obviously, you’d expect me to know a fair bit about spelling, punctuation, grammar and Shakespeare, and I do. Without doubt, my knowledge and understanding of language rules helps me navigate the written word with a fair degree of facility. And that in turn means that I can communicate effectively with ‘the establishment’. But Shakespeare? From memory I can recite chunks from about 5 plays and have a solid working knowledge of another 6 or 7, but, as far as I’m aware, this has given me relatively little insight into the human condition. Knowledge of the cannon enables you to ‘get’ references made by others and to take your seat amongst smug backslappers but I really don’t think it’s valuable per se. Certainly Shakespeare’s plays are no more insightful than say, Marlowe’s; it’s just that more people have heard of them. Sharing the same cultural knowledge base means that we can converse with a greater fund of shared reference points. So, my knowledge of Henry V is far more useful than my knowledge of Edward II. Most folk will be able to locate “Once more unto the breach, dear friends…” but will struggle to place “But what are kings, when regiment is gone, but perfect shadows in a sunshine day?” But which of these reveal more about the human condition? And does it matter?

I know little about the germ theory of disease beyond the fact that disease are transmitted by germs and that washing my hands is a good thing. This may help prevent me from catching or passing on an illness, but it’s not going to have much impact on my ability to cure such illnesses. As with so much else in the modern world I’m just grateful that someone knows it. And as for trigonometry, I’m afraid I’m with Sam Cooke: I’m not even sure what a slide ruler’s for. (This is a an example of a joke which you will only get if you share my cultural references. Even then it isn’t very funny.)

Without question, curing disease and making sure buildings stay up is important stuff and I in no way want to trivialise these things. It’s just that I don’t need to know them. My life, and everyone else’s, continues without any undue concern at my ignorance. This suggests, to me at least, that the idea that there is a particular body of knowledge that we should all know is dubious.

Outside of teaching, there really aren’t that many things about which I need to know stuff on a regular basis. I know a lot about cooking and have memorised huge quantities of recipes; I know how to drive and have internalised this knowledge to such an extent that I can do it without thinking, and I know a fair bit about how to find stuff out. Of course I know loads of other stuff but that comes under the heading of trivia. It’s trivial. That is to say, it’s not that important.

It becomes important when I read. My extensive vocabulary and general knowledge enable me to comprehend texts which might baffle those who know less about the world. Reading is the best way to learn new things. But those who are, perhaps, most in need of knowledge are the least able to obtain it. Joseph Heller wrote a book about this (another cultural reference there!)

My point is that cultural capital is important. It enables us to access society in a way which would be impossible if we didn’t know any of this trivia. But it’s only important because other people know it and it’s useful to show that we share values. And that being the case, it really is “some kind of elitist scam designed to protect access to institutions”. To that end I have just bought This Will Make You Smarter in the hope of increasing my cultural capital.

Is this a bad thing? Maybe. It is, however, the world we live in. Short of rioting, the only way to affect change is from within. Janet Street Porter mocked the idea of stakeholder society this week in The Independent. She said,

In gambling, a passive third party holds the stakes – they are not involved in the game. That’s exactly what’s wrong with the idea of a stakeholder society. Stakeholders who have not paid money, or who have no responsibility for their shares, have no impetus to work to behave well or maximise their investment. If citizens are stakeholders in society, where’s our contract? What’s expected of us in return for our stake?

So, ante up, learn to speak the language of the ruling elite and tear down the walls from the inside.

Related posts

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Is grammar glamorous?
Should we be teaching knowledge or skills? 

14 Responses to What to know: the importance of cultural capital

  1. […] Surely, our job, at least in part, is to expand students’ cultural capital? […]

  2. […] Surely, our job, at least in part, is to expand students’ cultural capital? […]

  3. […] our daily interactions, we can provide them with the social capital that their more affluent peers absorb from their surrounds by osmosis.  Yes I know there is a […]

  4. […] posts What to know: the importance of cultural capital Does creativity need rules? The problem with progress part 1: learning vs […]

  5. Cristina Milos says:

    I think this should be our very first conversation in education as the “cultural capital” is directly tied to the curriculum design.
    What should we include? What should we leave out? Who decides? On what basis? What are the implications of such a selection in the future?

    In as much as I understand your reasoning I don’t agree. You advocate for a restrictive stance – for immediacy, efficiency, and short term usefulness. But I think education is more than that.

    First reason: You might find out later on you DO need to know a lot.
    When I was a student I used to question the importance (read: usefulness) of certain subjects in school: why would I need to study Genetics, for instance, since I will be teaching English? Wrong. It helped me link with cognitive sciences which, in turn, deepened my understanding of psychology (and child psychology) better. All subjects helped one way or another later in life, whether we talk about Algebra, Physics or Linguistics. I now teach in an international school (life has interesting roads ahead…) and the curriculum is taught in transdisciplinary units of inquiry – it is my knowledge of such subjects that enables me make lessons more interesting and ignite children’s curiosity in , say, Newton’s Laws of Inertia to understand forces and motion.

    Second reason: Knowing helps you UNDERSTAND the world.
    You might say that is not “useful”. I would say it is one of the longest and most fascinating journeys in one’s life. Sure, in order to gain “success” you can simply focus on domain-specific knowledge and pursue exclusively that. But I think true intellectuals are eclectic people. They are interested in more than one field and even in the absence of a formal path (i.e. PhDs) they pursue knowledge out of the sheer desire to know. Because knowing helps you appreciate the wonders of the world, and it engages you with life in a different way.

    To me this “efficiency” leads to two big dangers: overspecialization and, even worse, the death of pure curiosity.
    I wrote a brief post on this here… http://ateacherswonderings.wordpress.com/2012/06/

  6. learningspy says:

    Cristina – from your comment I think you’ve completely misunderstood my (obviously badly expressed) stance. I’m all for curiosity and knowing stuff. Particularly this from AE Houseman: “All Human Knowledge is precious whether or not it serves the slightest human use.”

  7. […] me, the point about cultural capital is that it isn’t subjective, or at least, not very subjective. It’s based on the body […]

  8. […] is strictly finite. If you’re going to invest lesson time on activities with little or no cultural capital then this is time you cannot also spend on something more culturally rich. You have to make a […]

  9. […] social justice we actually deny our students choice. Much better to teach knowledge with the most cultural capital and then learn to critique it. After all,  you can’t really criticise something you […]

  10. […] and my A Levels didn’t matter. What mattered was a very specific domain of knowledge- of cultural capital– that my state school education hadn’t imbued me […]

  11. […] and my A Levels didn’t matter. What mattered was a very specific domain of knowledge- of Cultural capital imbued me with.  I felt deficient in two areas: wealth and knowledge. As I referred to briefly […]

  12. […] I think our job is to teach great works of literature however challenging that might be. Our job is to take Hardy or Bronte or Shakespeare or Dickens and make that accessible for all our students. If it was good enough for us and it’s good enough for students in private schools or grammar schools then it’s good enough for all of my students. Because of course these great works of literature are relevant to everybody – they’re part of our cultural heritage and I want my students to have cultural capital; they’re not going to get that from reading books that are the modern day equivalent of ‘My Darling, My Hamburger’ in lesson time. David Didau writes convincingly about the importance of cultural capital here. […]

  13. […] actually doing is denying our students choice. Much better to teach knowledge with the most cultural capital and then learn to critique it. After all,  you can’t really criticise something you don’t […]

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