Where we’re getting ‘cultural capital’ wrong

The concept of ‘cultural capital’ is increasingly on the agenda in the schools I visit. No doubt this is in large part down to Ofsted. The latest inspection framework makes specific mention of the term in its guidance on what a school curriculum ought to contain. School leaders are told they will be judged on the extent to which they “construct a curriculum that is ambitious and designed to give all learners … the knowledge and cultural capital they need to succeed in life”. Sadly, the term remains undefined and nowhere is it made clear what the cultural capital children need to succeed in life actually is. Understandably, this has many school leaders rattled.

What is cultural capital?

Knowledge is powerful if it enables children to follow and participate in debates on significant local, national and global issues. There are sound sociocultural reasons why children should experience the most prevalent and important ideas to have emerged through the iterative processes of accumulating human culture.

The idea of ‘cultural capital’ idea originated with the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, who argued that, like material wealth, culturally valuable knowledge is a kind of capital. While we all occupy a position within society, we are defined not only by membership of a social class, but also by the ‘capital’ we can amass through social relations. Needless to say, as with any other kind of capital, this can, and often does, result in inequality. Children from more advantaged backgrounds are likely to have more of it than those whose backgrounds are more disadvantaged. This being the case, many schools have seized the opportunity to narrow this particular gap by offering a curriculum that is ‘culturally rich’ to all students.

One way this is sometimes interpreted is for school leaders to organise visits to local museums, galleries and theatres, and to find opportunities for students to read classic literature. This is all very well, but I think it conflates the notion of ‘being cultured’ with possessing cultural capital. Can we really justify traipsing children around art galleries with the belief that doing so has somehow narrowed the advantage gap?

Let’s take the example of art, specifically painting: which paintings and which artists confer the most cultural capital? In trying to answer that question, all you can do is to think of the paintings and artists you’ve personally heard of. The majority of educated adults can probably name a handful of famous artists: Monet, Manet, Van Gogh, Da Vinci, Picasso, Dali, Turner, Constable and possibly a few others. You may also be able to bring to mind some examples of each of these artists’ work: Water Lilies, Sunflowers, Starry Night, Mona Lisa, Soft Clocks. You may also recognise a number of paintings where you’re unsure of the artist:

Unless you’ve studied art history – or have a particular interest in one of more of these artists – you probably know little else beyond very basic biographical facts and titles of a few famous works. This entirely normal (although very shallow) pool of knowledge does not make you cultured, but it does confer cultural capital. Whenever anyone references Mona Lisa’s mysterious smile, Van Gogh’s bandaged self-portrait, or Picasso’s cubist period, you pretty much know what they mean without having to ask for an explanation. This may give you the appearance of being cultured to a casual observer, but that’s irrelevant. The real power of possessing shared cultural knowledge is that you have enough familiarity to easily navigate conversations with others who know what you know. When someone refers to ‘Room 101’ or ‘Big Brother’ you may recognise that these ideas come from Orwell’s 1984 without ever having read it yourself. If someone describes a change of mind as a ‘Damascene conversion’ you know they’re drawing on your shared knowledge of Paul’s encounter with God on the road to Damascus without necessarily possessing any of the specifics. And whenever someone refers to suffering “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” you know they’re channelling Shakespeare despite never having seen or studied Hamlet, and, most importantly, you know they’re saying they’ve had a run of bad luck.

The value of cultural capital – or cultural literacy to use E. D. Hirsch, Jr’s term – is that it consists of knowledge that it is useful for everyone to know. Being able to quote bits of Shakespeare or knowing Pythagoras’ theorem may seem like trivia, but it enables us to access society in a way which would be impossible if we didn’t know any of this. It’s important because so many other people know it. If some people know something and others don’t, those who don’t will find themselves excluded or marginalised from the group which does. If, as is the case in every society human beings have ever developed, those in the more knowledgeable group have more power and influence, those excluded from this group find themselves on the fringes of society. Whether we like it or not, the powerful routinely decide that what they value is a marker of the elite. If the children of the elite are the only ones given access to this deep pool of accumulated culture, they will inevitably perpetuate the divisions and inequalities between the haves and the have-nots. But if the children of those on the margins are taught the same stuff as the wealthy and powerful, the possibility opens up that they can gain access to opportunities denied to their parents.

What, specifically, is the knowledge children need to be considered culturally literate?

One possible starting place is the “5,000 essential names, phrases, dates, and concepts,” Hirsch, included in Cultural Literacy. The list represents the assumed knowledge necessary to read and understand articles in the New York Times. Because this knowledge is assumed, it’s not discussed or explained but merely referenced, indicating a latticework of those things which could empower us to think better about the world. It includes items as varied as the Augean stables, Bering Sea, caveat emptor, ‘Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night’, embargo, folklore, Great Depression, David Hume, infinitive, Judas Iscariot, “Lay on, Macduff ”, metabolism, Nicaragua, orbit, Pharisees, Ramadan, sharecropping, Thomas Malthus, Ursa Major, Victorian, Whistler’s Mother, xylem,“You can’t serve both God and Mammon” and zeitgeist.

I couldn’t claim to know a lot about most of these items, but they are all familiar and connect to existing schemas. If I hear or read any of them, I share something that doesn’t then require further explanation. So, knowing these things – that cleaning the Augean stables was one of Hercules’ heroic labours; that the Bering Sea separates Russia from Alaska; that caveat emptor is the Latin for buyer beware; that Dylan Thomas wrote the poem ‘Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night’ – a perfect example of a villanelle – about death; that an embargo prevents one from acting or trading while it is in place; that folklore is the stuff of old wives’ tales; that the Great Depression took place mainly in 1930s America and resulted in Wall Street bankers chucking themselves out of windows; that David Hume was a Scottish philosopher specialising in empiricism and scepticism; that the infinitive is the basic form of a verb which sends traditionally minded grammarians into a coughing fit if split (boldly or otherwise); that Judas Iscariot was a Zealot who betrayed Jesus for 30 pieces of silver; that “Lay on Macduff ” comes from Shakespeare’s play Macbeth and is popularly misquoted as “Lead on”; that metabolism concerns the chemical processes of life; that Nicaragua is a Central American nation made infamous by the US funding of the Contras; that an orbit is the path taken by a planetary body around its sun; that the Pharisees were the priest class who so hated Jesus; that Ramadan is the Islamic month of fasting; that sharecropping is a form of agriculture where a tenant pays rent for the right to farm; that Thomas Malthus observed that population doubles every 25 years unless checked by one or other of the four horsemen (and is wholly incorrect); that Ursa Major is the constellation commonly known as the Great Bear; that Victorian refers to the period in which Queen Victoria ruled the British Empire; that Whistler’s Mother is the colloquial name given to a painting of the American painter James McNeill Whistler’s maternal parent; that xylem has got something to do with how a plant gets water from its roots to its leaves; that ‘You can’t serve both God and Mammon’ is an injunction against the possibility of living a religious life and making money; and that zeitgeist is a German word translating to ‘spirit of the age’ – means when I encounter these terms I access schematic networks that provide additional, enriching information without needing to look anything up or ask anyone for explanations.

If recognising these sorts of terms is precisely what makes us culturally literate, the questions for school leaders is how best to weave this stuff into the fabric of the curriculum. It certainly doesn’t mean teachers need to teach whole lessons on Nicaragua, Hercules or sharecropping – just that these things – if they get sufficient mention – lodge in the brain. If any of these items are re-encountered, the tiny amounts of prior knowledge possessed create the possibility that stronger schematic connections can be formed more rapidly than otherwise.

If schools are really interested in closing the culture gap, then the curriculum they offer doesn’t just need to include islands of culturally rich knowledge, it needs to offer the oceanic breadth between these outposts. I’ve argued before that breadth trumps depth; depth only really makes sense with sufficient breadth. This kind of approach is often criticised as providing ‘pub quiz’ knowledge. They wonder when children will ever need to know the capital of Mongolia, who wrote Tess of the D’Ubervilles, or when Queen Victoria died. Surely, they say, if children ever need to know such things they can look them up. Well, they can, but more they have to look up, the harder it is to make sense of anything they read.

Possessing knowledge is liberating. Knowing a little about a lot provides the intellectual velcro to which new ideas and information stick: the more superficial knowledge we have, the more likely we are to recognise ideas when they’re reintroduced, and the easier we find it to acquire greater depth. A broad network of superficial knowledge is a screed, smoothing out the roughness of ignorance and upon which something more durable and flexible can be laid.

To be clear, I’m not claiming that Hirsch’s list is either definitive or right; that would be the wrong way to think. Every country would need its own list, but still, the list is not the point. It’s just a mechanism for organising information which may – or may not – be worth teaching; it can used badly or well. Our focus should be on schema acquisition and considering the connections between all that a child knows. Just as a ‘map is not the territory’, the list (or the curriculum) is merely a way of representing items that should – or could – be taught.

The problem of ‘dead white men’

One much chewed bone of contention is who gets to decide what knowledge children should learn. The most important things to know are those things that last and which most influence other cultural developments; those things that inspire the most conversations backwards and forwards through time and across space; those things that allow us to trace our cultural inheritance through threads of thought from the discoveries of modern science and the synthesis of modern art back to their ancient origins. Matthew Arnold’s oft quoted assertion that children should be taught ‘the best’ sounds promising, but clearly, what you or I might consider ‘best’ is subjective, but, that said, it’s rarely arbitrary. It tends to be the product of generations of people agreeing that certain things are inherently good. Collectively we decide what is valuable and important simply by knowing this and not that.

That is not to claim that this process is not enormously culturally biased, but neither is it entirely subjective. Even if you’re utterly unmoved by Darwin’s contribution to science or Smith’s to economics, you still probably recognise that phrases like ‘survival of the fittest’ and ‘the invisible hand’ have permeated social discourse, and that even if you don’t really understand them, the theories of evolution and market forces have changed the way we think about ourselves and our place in the universe. The more children know about their cultural inheritance, the more they can question, critique and respond to what has gone before.

Canonical knowledge is regularly condemned as ‘stale, male and pale’. Instead of teaching the thoughts and works of the elite, shouldn’t we instead prioritise the voices of the more marginalised? Should we de- emphasise what is traditional in favour of what is politically progressive. These are tough questions. The challenges of a curriculum rooted in powerful knowledge and cultural capital are described by Hirsch in Why Knowledge Matters:

Because of an inherent and inescapable inertia in the knowledge that is shared among hundreds of millions of people, the Core Knowledge plan was necessarily traditional, and was criticised in the 1990s for being so. It appeared to perpetuate the dominance of the already dominant elements of American life, while the aim of many intellectuals in the 1990s was to reduce that dominance and privilege, and valorize neglected cultures and women. So there was quite a lot of controversy attached to the Core Knowledge plan, which, though egalitarian in purpose and result, looked elitist on the surface. The aim of giving everybody entrée to the knowledge of power ran smack up against the aim of deprivileging those who are currently privileged. [my emphasis]

This is a genuine problem. On the face of it, building a curriculum around the thoughts and deeds of historically marginalised groups looks like a really good idea. Who wouldn’t want children to know about the achievements of women and people of colour? The trouble is, this isn’t shared knowledge. It doesn’t allow access to the ‘knowledge of power’, and, crucially, it doesn’t provide much cultural capital. Our dilemma is to navigate the tight confines of the school curriculum to find a way to teach the knowledge “shared among hundreds of millions of people” as well as to teach knowledge that deprivileges “those who are currently privileged.” In this endeavour, we must maintain focus on the egalitarian purpose of teaching powerful, culturally rich knowledge so that it can be critiqued.

Not teaching the thoughts and words of dead white men won’t help anyone to understand why people of colour and women have been historically marginalised. When we express our righteous indignation that some knowledge is valued over other knowledge, and decide to teach this other knowledge in the name of liberty and social justice, what we’re actually doing is denying children choice. As Hirsch puts it,“If we tried to teach children a fully non-traditional knowledge set, they could not master the existing language of power and success.” Deciding that children do not need to know things that some consider elitist or offensive condemns them to ignorance.

There are only two ways out of this bind: firstly, we should ensure a core of traditional knowledge is, where relevant, supplemented with carefully selected non-traditional knowledge, and, secondly, we should aim to teach the knowledge with the most cultural capital and then learn to critique it. After all, we can’t really criticise something we don’t understand. No one should be taught to unthinkingly agree that the British Empire was a glorious thing or that Shakespeare is the best writer ever, but if we don’t learn about these culturally important aspects of history and literature, we won’t know enough to understand the effects of colonialism and that the legacy of the bard is as much to do with cultural imperialism as it is to do with literary merit. Ignorance benefits no one.

The point of all this is to help children develop a more educated palate. When they are given a curriculum that offers them a broad sweep of culturally significant knowledge, they are empowered to say what they prefer from a position of knowing. Educated opinions have far currency than ignorant ones. The greater the breadth of children’s knowledge, the greater their sense of connoisseurship, the more able they are to think critically, and the wider the range of options open to them.

In part 2 of this series I will discuss the role of powerful knowledge.

This post is adapted from Chapter 8 ‘What Knowledge?’ of Making Kids Cleverer.