What is cultural capital and how does it impact education?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Cultural capital is the sum of our cultural experiences and knowledge that we bring to the educational table.  In the United States at least, the prevailing culture is white, western, and largely middle-class, thus those students who do not bring this capital to school are seriously disadvantaged. 

We learn by...

Unlock
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

Cultural capital is the sum of our cultural experiences and knowledge that we bring to the educational table.  In the United States at least, the prevailing culture is white, western, and largely middle-class, thus those students who do not bring this capital to school are seriously disadvantaged. 

We learn by incorporating new ideas and information into our minds, connecting those new ideas and information into what is already in our minds.  The more there is in our minds already, the more easily we can file new information and ideas and make connections between them and what is already there.

Generally, how students are taught in American schools is based upon a presumption that all students bring the same or similar cultural capital with them to school. The middle-class child has likely grown up with books, music, and art at home.  The middle-class child has attended summer camp, taken dancing lessons, and played soccer. He or she has been to art galleries, museums, zoos, plays, ballets, and good restaurants.  These students are largely of a Judeo-Christian background religiously.

Sadly, this is by no means true for many students in American schools, and their cultural capital, whatever it may be, is often not capitalized upon nor valued because it is not of the prevailing culture. Sometimes there are serious cultural deficiencies, such as the child who has never seen a book or a painting at home.  Sometimes there are simply differences, such as a child who has been raised in a rich Latino culture or who is of the Hindu faith. The educational outcomes for these students are often not good because we do not take into account their cultural capital or a lack thereof in our teaching methods.  

It is up to teachers to understand this and to learn what the various students' cultures are that they bring with them and to learn what deficiencies must be addressed.  Learning is quite difficult if a student has no way to connect the new ideas to something already present in the student's mind.  Each student must be brought along in his or her own way, at the student's pace, not at the pace of a cookie-cutter curriculum.  A kindergartner who has never seen a book is not at a reading readiness stage.  This is a child who must be taught of the richness and beauty of books, perhaps extra time reading to the child, before anyone should attempt to teach the decoding of words. When students bring their various different cultures to the classroom, this should be an opportunity to find value and share another culture with the entire class.  Then everyone is learning and the teacher is gaining the knowledge necessary to teach students with different cultural capital. 

I can only speak for the United States on this matter, but as the world is becoming more of a global village, the effect of cultural capital on education is probably becoming just as important in other countries. Think of all the Syrians fleeing their country and settling in Europe. They bring the cultural capital of an ancient and magnificent civilization. Is their cultural capital going to be appreciated as they try to find their way in various European countries?  I don't know. I do know that historically, we have done a spectacularly bad job of this here.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team