Whose cultural capital?

Diane Hofkins

My mother invented a curriculum for cultural capital way before E D Hirsch. In the late 1960s she created a special course to help the brightest students at her New York City girls’ high school to pass the New York State scholarship test. Winning a scholarship would mean several thousand dollars worth of university tuition fees for the students, mainly children of immigrants and ethnic minorities.

In those days, it would be fair to say, the scholarship test’s assumption of a substantial level of general knowledge discriminated against the least privileged. My mother’s Scholarship Class set out to teach these Hispanic, African American and Chinese girls what her own daughter had picked up by living in an educated New York household and hanging around with kids from similar families. Her course could have been called What Every Educated American Should Know.

Over a year, she led the girls through the history of Western civilization, Bronowski-like, showing pictures from the Metropolitan Museum, discussing Greek myths, playing Beethoven. The course won awards, I don’t think that many students actually won scholarships (even my mother couldn’t compensate for 16 years of a different existence), but they loved the course. It changed lives.

About a decade after my mother devised her Scholarship Class, an English professor at the University of Virginia named E D Hirsch, Jr was thinking about similar questions.  During his investigations of what makes prose more or less readable, he discovered that even more important than the “readability” of the text was the background knowledge brought to it by the reader.

The example he gave to Fran Abrams in her excellent Radio 4 Analysis programme this week, was that many of the poorer students he taught at the University of Virginia not only lacked basic knowledge about the US Civil War, but this gap made it hard for them to read passages about it, even though their reading was fine when it came to familiar subjects.

“This and related discoveries led Hirsch to formulate the concept of cultural literacy – the idea that reading comprehension requires not just formal decoding skills but also wide-ranging background knowledge, “ according to Wikipedia. “He concluded that schools should not be neutral about what is taught but should teach a highly specific curriculum that would allow children to understand things writers take for granted.” His goal was to improve social mobility.

He wrote Cultural Literacy: What every American Needs to Know in 1987, followed 10 years later by the Core Knowledge series, with each book titled What Your ____ Grader needs to know. As readers of the IOE London blog will know, Hirsch’s ideas have had a powerful influence on Michael Gove’s thinking about the forthcoming new curriculum.

In the US, Hirsch, an American liberal, was lauded by the Right and condemned by the Left, just as he has been over here. My mother, whose work preceded such labelling, would have been horrified if her course had been called right-wing. But it is at the junction of social mobility and cultural capital that the battle lines cross. Who is qualified to decide which set of facts all children should learn? How can we make sure it is taking the country into the future and not languishing in the past?

There is a very lumpy circle to be squared. My mother’s scholarship students gained knowledge that would help them succeed at university and in the world of work, but those Chinese, Hispanic and African American girls did not learn about their own rich cultures. If the school curriculum – by sustaining and building a common culture — helps to shape society, shouldn’t we be finding ways to broaden our ideas of what every educated person should know?

Diane Hofkins edits IOE London blog

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Posted in Teaching, learning, curriculum & assessment
5 comments on “Whose cultural capital?
  1. behrfacts says:

    TES has just published about a successful primary school in a deprived part of London where 75% of the children come from poor immigrant backgrounds. This is an amazing melting pot of cultures striving for life long learning and escape from poverty. This may drown out English culture, but even Boris is advocating a special London curriculum so presumably we may get different regional versions now? Any culture is not fixed in stone but evolves over time, adapting to and with other cultures, which has happened in England over many centuries. In my view a national curriculum needs to get that point across – its role isn’t to shape a society but to reflect back on received wisdom and allow young people to challenge this as they develop into adults.

  2. Miss Honey says:

    Yes. Transmission of cultural capital is essential, but it is a question of whose culture is to be transmitted. ED Hirsch’s approach elevates the culture of one social group above all others in pursuit of a, largely illusory, shared cultural language. Our education system should be broadened, as you suggest, to allow for different views on what should constitute cultural capital within particular social groups, while promoting respect for other cultural traditions.

  3. rkid76 says:

    I listened to the Analysis programme too and very informative it was. However, my listening was marred somewhat by some annoying interference on the radio. But it turned out it was me grinding my teeth to powder

  4. […] some way to travel), but if his recent backing of the work of E.D. Hirsch means anything, then a true cultural literacy may find its way into English education […]

  5. ed says:

    I may be reading into this all wrong but it seems to me that Hirsch, Gove and others have focused on only one of two possible solutions to the issue of ‘cultural capital’ (or lack of it in some students). Is there another solution that puts the emphasis squarely onto the shoulders of the teacher/educator? Rather than creating a list of ‘facts’ everyone needs to know to help them get on – a top down solution if ever there was one – shouldn’t we be encouraging, empowering (even forcing?) teachers to adapt the way they teach to the needs of the classroom. A teacher in central London with a high % of ESOL students would have to be a bit creative and teach using a ‘cultural capital’ the students can buy into and understand. Working with students disengaged from regular education, we always have to adapt and fit the sessions into contexts they can or will want to understand. Hirsch may have had more success with teaching about the Civil War if he used a context relevant to his students, not insisting/hoping they all benefit from the same background knowledge.
    Ok, this means a lot more work for teachers, but then really, isn’t this what differentiation is all about (or should be)?

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