Webinar reflections | Cultural capital

Digesting Haili Hughes’ Bedrock Webinar: Part One - Cultural Capital

By Jamie Bazley

15 Apr 2024


It was recently our great pleasure to welcome Haili Hughes into our Bedrock community to deliver a thought provoking and practical webinar for our teachers that touched upon disciplinary literacy and cultural capital as tools to narrow the attainment gap.

She's brilliant, and you can still access her session for us via this link if you haven't done so already.

One of the things that is close to her heart, and our collective heart here at Bedrock, is the idea of cultural capital, which formed a key thread through her session. She did a characteristically powerful job of explaining the concept during the webinar, but I’ll paraphrase here.

Something of a buzzword in educational circles in recent years, the idea of cultural capital is drawn from the work of sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, who sought in the 1970s and 1980s to classify the various threads of advantage that can lead to an individual achieving what we might term ‘success’ or ‘power’. For him, it was never about wealth, or at least it was never about wealth alone.

He identified four forms of ‘capital’ that contribute towards the advancement of social position and power. The first, of course, is money – Bourdieu called it economic capital, and it refers to the way in which the path to success can be accelerated if you’ve a little finance behind you (Haili talked about her colleagues on a journalism course who’d been able to afford the luxury of not bringing in a wage during their training).

But in addition to economic capital, there’s also social capital, fuelled by those networks and patterns of associations that allow some people in society to get a leg-up into a particular career (Haili again talked about examples of former journalism colleagues with parents at major newspapers or in parliament).

Thirdly, there’s symbolic capital, by which Bourdieu meant the reputation and goodwill associated with a particular position or family name.

What unites these forms of capital, for us as teachers, is that there is very little we can do about them. If it is part of our goal, and it is for many of the teachers I speak with every day, to play a part in building a society of equal opportunity, we could do a lot worse than focusing our attention on Bourdieu’s final form of capital: cultural capital.

Cultural capital refers to the cultural awareness and aesthetic tastes that characterise discourse in the corridors of power and can therefore serve as ‘currency’ for people walking those corridors. It’s not enough to just make your fortune; if you are not au-fait with Shakespeare, fine art, Greek mythology and anything else that typically makes up the curriculum of the nation’s most exclusive schools, there’s a sense in which you will always be partly excluded from the ‘higher class’.

So what can we do? Bourdieu proposed what he called ‘rational pedagogy,’ which is essentially an approach that seeks to counteract the advantages of the dominant class by inculcating the relevant aspects of their cultural education in all classes. If there is such a thing as a ‘legitimate’ culture that carries with it a weight of respect that its owner can use for personal advancement, why not give access to that knowledge to all children, regardless of background or circumstance? If we don’t, our young people who do buck the trend and achieve success beyond their social background can be left feeling like Haili did when she joined more privileged peers at a prestigious university; like an ‘odd sock’ wondering how everyone else had been introduced to Kafka before she had.

But this approach has its own dangers. If we’re spoon-feeding children an elitist diet of ‘the best that has been thought and said,’ Haili follows the lead of Phil Beadle in warning us to be mindful of who has been historically excluded from this kind of recognition. We can’t fall into a trap of only broadening the minds of our young people as far as is dictated by a Western canon of predominantly white, predominantly middle-class, predominantly male writers.

We must, Haili says, seek to enhance the language skills of our learners without denigrating minority or working-class linguistic forms. We must heighten the cultural awareness of our learners without teaching them that their own culture isn’t good enough.

On this challenging mission, you have an ally in your Bedrock curriculum. Not just a tool for vocabulary expansion (although a broad vocabulary is a marker of cultural capital in its own right), Bedrock also seeks to expose students to a wide range of texts from a wide range of cultures that contain knowledge and insights that can serve as cultural assets for students, wherever they want to go in their lives.

If your learners find themselves placed by our algorithm in block 9, for example, they will encounter texts about Apartheid South Africa, Beethoven, Greek mythology and great female writers. In block 10, it’s Ghandi, Ai Weiwei, Colonialism and the history of Hip Hop. A broad diet of powerful, diverse and digestible reading to support your invaluable work of broadening the horizons of your learners.

To find out more, get in touch with your dedicated Teaching and Learning Consultant at education@bedrocklearning.org – we can’t wait to hear your ideas and feedback!

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