“Capital Punishment” by Danielle Jones (TES, 20210226)

“Cultural poverty is not the pressing priority,” Danielle Jones argues in a TES article. It’s economic disadvantage.

Jones refers to Bourdieu and briefly draws a connection between wealthy families and possession of cultural capital. She believes that OFSTED’s interest in cultural capital has an “unarticulated assumption, therefore, is that economic and social capital plays a lesser part – or can be less pivotal – in this life success.”

Her argument seems to be that it is possible to separate different forms of capital (social, economic and cultural) and questions how equitable our education system actually is when the wealthiest benefit the most.

Her conclusion is that: “within our current context, we can no longer pretend that the biggest deficit that a disadvantaged child faces is not enough time spent reading Shakespeare. Food poverty, caused by a lack of economic capital, is accelerating rapidly, with more than 2 million children experiencing food insecurity since the pandemic began.”

Jones also points out the differences in social capital and draws on the positive impact on schooling of having a stable family background researched by Sandra Dika and Kusum Singh. (Here I’m not sure if she’s arguing that poorer families are socially less stable. Couldn’t it be that some working class families just don’t have a traditional nuclear family structure?) Jones points out:

“For a substantial number of children, parental income impacts on several aspects of their education, including the school they attend, their access to extracurricular and cultural activities, and the support they receive with homeschooling – the last being particularly important in our current climate. Here, we can see the impact of economic and social capital, as more affluent parents feel more confident offering advice, supporting their children with work and guiding them on visits – albeit virtually – to cultural locations.”

Later in the article Jones draws attention to the inequality in the “impact that the coronavirus has had on the attainment gap between rich and poor pupils. It has grown by 46 per cent in a single year, according to a study by the National Foundation for Educational Research”

Jones believes “If genuine progress is to be made in this area, we need to take a long hard look at our society.” For her, there is no interconnection between different forms of capital possessed by a person:

“Providing pupils with cultural capital is laudable as an aim but it will only really make a difference once we have begun to tackle economic disadvantage and ensured that our children have what they need to succeed.”

While Jones seems to me to be fundamentally right: economic and social disadvantage are primary issues facing children in education, cultural capital isn’t politically neutral. The educational Right see “cultural capital” as a means of encouraging poor children into aping the traditions and attitudes of the monied classes. Perhaps, for some, it’s a genuine belief that the entrepreneurial spirit will fill the empty bellies of poor children and enable them to raise themselves up out of poverty. Or, for others on the Right, an Arnoldian sense that “cultural capital” will carry the best knowledge and ideas throughout society. Of course, the “best ideas” are those of the dominant class and almost always infers the superiority of the old-fashioned and traditional ways of doing things. (Worth remembering that in the Nineteenth Century this same drive to disseminate a liberal culture as expressed in Essays on a Liberal Education and Culture and Anarchy actually meant in practice taking the traditional teaching methods of the public schools into lower-middle class and elementary schools).

One of its chief roles is in legitimising the current social order. Even if “cultural capital” isn’t taught explicitly, it’s a means of systematising inequality. The dominant culture seeks to ensure that traditions based on what has endured are inculcated. Even if Phil Beadle’s revolutionary subversion and re-tooling of “cultural capital” isn’t achievable (Beadle quotes John Lydon as a call to arms: “Get smart, read and much as you can and find out who’s using you”), I think that aspects of Arts and Literature can be used in a civilising, humanising way – even with the most economically deprived children.

This brings to mind Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch’s justification for teaching Literature at school: “Can you not give them also in their short years at school, something to sustain their souls in the long Valley of Humilia­tion?” Or even George Sampson: “I am prepared to maintain, and indeed, do maintain, without reserva­tion and perhapses, that it is the purpose of education, not to prepare children for their occupations, but to prepare children against their occupations.”