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.