Thursday, October 22, 2009

Bourdieu and Passeron 4: To Succeed in School You Need a Skill Not Taught in School

This week I will be blogging on Pierre Bourdieu and Jean-Claude Passeron's Reproduction in Education, Culture, and Society, which we are studying in my macrosociological theory class.

The higher classes also are likely to learn the language of school - the extended code, the ability to think and speak abstractly, the ability to think beyond your own circumstances, the ability to put yourself in the position of a quite different Other. It is the language in which this blog is written. They come to school with a hidden advantage. Their primary habitus matches the school habitus.

Bourdieu's signal contribution to sociology is the idea that cultural capital is the way that the richer classes can turn their economic capital into a productive social advantage. And when they teach that cultural capital to their children, the children reap that advantage. Part of the advantage comes in their greater ease in school. Their primary habitus matches the school's habitus, which is normally the authorized habitus of the dominant culture.

Beyond their greater ease with what the school does teach, advantaged kids come to their school years at ease with important cultural knowledge that the school does not teach. Their primary habitus is full of all the cultural knowledge that involved, informed parents drag their kids too. Beyond that, the primary habitus of the most advantaged children has an attitude toward learning culture that makes school success and social success much easier.

To really succeed in school, you need a code that the school does not teach.


Black Sea said...

"The higher classes also are likely to learn . . . the ability to think and speak abstractly, the ability to think beyond your own circumstances, the ability to put yourself in the position of a quite different Other."

Isn't this another way of saying that the higher classes operate not only from a culturally dominant point of view, but from a more intellectually sophisticated point of view? I'm not necessarily claiming that they do -- for one thing, the higher classes, whatever they are, are hardly uniform in their way of thinking about anything, but given the terms in which you describe their intellectual frame of mind, which presuamably reflects Bourdieu's and Passeron's appraisal, one could in fact argue that this is a more advanced intellectual perspective, and so, unsurprisingly, it leads to superior academic performance.

It is also worth noting the fact that -- however troubling to some -- the upper classes tend to consist disproportionately of the more intelligent. The ability to amass and retain wealth, as well as the ability to convincingly argue for the primacy of one's values, all correlate positively with intelligence. Perhaps the upper classes do well in school, not only because they are culturally advantaged, but because they tend to be smarter.

Gruntled said...

One of the ironies of all of Bourdieu's work is that he writes books that require a great deal of education to understand about how arbitrary the content of education is.

Sophisticated understanding is a real value. Smart people are more likely to end up in higher classes, and give their children an advantage - especially if they marry other smart people.

Bourdieu's main point, I think, is that schools do not simply reward smart people or hardworking people. They also reward people who learn a code that the schools do not teach, and the cult of schools hides this fact.

It seems to me that the real-world consequence of this insight is to teach cultural capital more broadly.

Anonymous said...

I'm hardly a member of "the higher classes", so I've hesitated to comment, but I must make one observation.

I see that the higher classes are described as culturally and intellectually dominant (or sophisticated), but what about morality? Do the authors address this at all? Does cultural and intellectual superiority lead to any advances in morality?

Gruntled said...

Bourdieu rarely speaks of morality. It is not really one of his concepts. I think he would treat morality as another aspect of class culture, aimed at legitimating the class from which it comes.