Cultural Capital & Powerful Knowledge

Knowledge matters. But which knowledge and whose knowledge? These are questions we should be grappling with but too often important discussions can become dichotomised and unhelpfully fractious.

This was illustrated by the recent discussions about Ofsted’s use of ‘cultural capital’ in its new framework. Thoughtful people on both sides of the argument were shut down abruptly – too frequently with the blunt assertion they lacked ambition for their disadvantaged pupils. This echoed another recent debate about whether children should study Stormzy or Mozart.

Cultural capital was part of Pierre Bourdieu’s explanation of how the social order is maintained. If all that sounds a little Marxist, well, that’s probably because there are Marxist influences at play in Bourdieu’s work. Cultural capital, in Bourdieu’s work, is not so much a means of liberating the working class but more a means of repressing them; we all have cultural capital but elite culture is given higher status because it serves as way of distinguishing between those who are at the top and those who are not.

I wonder if Bourdieu might have argued that an inspectorate advocating that disadvantaged children be given a diet of elite culture is just another method of advancing such things as being the means of access to high social status, thus entrenching the social hierarchy rather than challenging it.

Now, to be clear, I don’t think this is Ofsted’s ‘intent’, to coin a phrase. Having seen the creation of the new framework up close, I know the inspectorate is genuinely motivated by a desire to create equity in our schools and wider society, and I don’t think Ofsted advocates only the transmission of elite culture. Ofsted has borrowed its definition of ‘knowledge and cultural capital’ from the national curriculum:

‘It is the essential knowledge that pupils need to be educated citizens, introducing them to the best that has been thought and said and helping to engender an appreciation of human creativity and achievement.’

It seems to me that Ofsted, and the Department for Education, are using the term ‘cultural capital’ in a way not intended by Bourdieu. We can take a view on how far that is a problem – it’s probably something that I should have given more thought during the consultation on the new framework. But what proved most interesting was the debate it provoked last week. What ‘cultural capital’ do we want our pupils to learn? For example, do we think it’s important that working class pupils can explain the rules of polo? Or do we mean something else? Are we talking about the arts? And what are the possibilities for doing so in an education system where many schools have been forced to cut provision in these areas?

Before I am labelled an ‘enemy of promise’, allow me to point out I have not said that certain groups of pupils shouldn’t be introduced to the ‘best that has been thought and said’. What I am doing, I hope, is challenging cultural capital as the means through which we might identify what the ‘best’ looks like.

The social origins of knowledge are one way to determine what we value but, on its own, where does this take us? It could mean we only value something because of who said it, we don’t value it because of where it came from, or we risk not valuing anything at all because we believe it’s all just a matter of perspective – in such a world there is no better knowledge. We reduce it only to where it came from, not what it is. This would be slightly paradoxical in the context of knowledge-rich curriculum design, as we would in fact be foregrounding something other than the knowledge: the knower.

An alternative is to put knowledge itself under the microscope and look more closely. Some are already doing this and I see many teachers engaging with Michael Young’s notion of ‘powerful knowledge’. Young argues that some knowledge opens doors to new ways of seeing and thinking about the world. Such knowledge tends to be specialized (not everyday knowledge) and conceptual. It allows us to generalize, to make links with other concepts and to think beyond particular contexts. Ark’s John Blake has written some excellent pieces on powerful knowledge in the curriculum, so I won’t rehearse the detail here.

Young’s argument is that all children are entitled to ‘powerful knowledge’ as a means of intellectual development. It transcends the people, places and time of its origin. It matters because of what it is, not because of where it came from, although we recognise it has a particular origin.

This is quite different to cultural capital. But how well is this understood? In Young’s work ‘power’ is a property of the knowledge itself – it gives power to think in new ways. In cultural capital ‘power’ is a property of the knower – the knowledge of the powerful. And that’s without throwing ED Hirsch’s notion of cultural literacy into the mix!

Does all this matter? I think it does. In the rush towards curriculum change we ought to think carefully about the basis on which we include and exclude content. We can’t teach it all, so choices have to be made. On what footing do we make those choices? Sensible discussion of this issue, including a critical appraisal of the value of cultural capital as a curriculum driver, need not necessarily be seen as a weakness of curriculum thinking.

As an example, we could return to the Mozart vs Stormzy debate from a few weeks ago. There are compelling reasons why schools might choose to teach Mozart, and not only because some might associate it with the culture of a particular class. What of the music itself and what it reveals about composition, what does it tell us about the eighteenth century? Equally, on what basis might a school include current music, such as Stormzy, in its curriculum? Might analysis of such music also provide meaningful insight into the structure of music and its relationship with society? Does it necessarily lack ambition for our pupils if we decide to carefully integrate contexts pupils are familiar with? Perhaps so if we never stray from the familiar, or if such study is not used to probe and explore the fundamental concepts of the subject, but the Mozart vs Stormzy dichotomy is a false one. It is possible to see how both could have a place in a high-quality music curriculum.

There may also be cultural practices and experiences we want to share with pupils because such knowledge, whether we like it or not, might be considered part of the ‘rules of admission’ to a particular part of society. But this is not straight forward. In consecrating the cultural practices of another group on this basis we might also want to consider our pupils’ own context, how we mediate between the two and what might be lost if this is done badly.

So how do we resolve these issues? Firstly, we should be explicit about the basis of the arguments we make about which knowledge we teach. Although our curriculum might be influenced by notions of cultural capital and powerful knowledge, they are not necessarily the same thing.

Secondly, try to understand the basis of others’ arguments too. You may find more common ground than you expect, or at least better reveal the principles which underlie any disagreement. This should enable richer and more fruitful debate and that’s got to be good for how we think and talk about the curriculum.

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