Thursday, July 7, 2011

Cultural capital.

One of the things I like about Facebook is finding people once thought long-lost, like classmates from the time when I was as tall as a grasshopper. I was talking to someone I had never even had a proper conversation with before back in primary school (we were nine years old and at that age we thought boys had cooties), and he was telling me how he had to fund his own way through design school, and it was too difficult to work and study at the same time, so he dropped out.

I saw some of his work and I think he's a brilliant designer, so it's such a waste to not have qualifications to back it up. I realise that for artists the portfolio is more important, but there's no denying the value of developing thinking and management skills in school. At the same time, I understand how it can be so difficult to have to find your own money to go to school, when for so many people it's merely the effort of finding the suitable school or course.

Now, clearly we are not from the same class in society. Most of the friends I know from the very small, (what we call 'neighbourhood', versus 'elite') primary school I came from didn't go to university. Some of them are no doubt brilliant, but money is what stops them. I've written elsewhere about the Malay Gap (and reflections on it) but it's worth repeating that wealth is linked to education. It's much easier to be rich and well-educated when your parents are, for so many reasons.

Let's use this friend as an example. In many conversations I've had with rich people (I know it's kind of crude to just separate society like that, but bear with me for the purposes of my explanation, heh) who think the poor are poor because they are lazy, they tell me that there are so many scholarships and bursaries around - why don't these poor students apply for them? My response to that: cultural capital in the form of information.

My friend didn't know that there were several organisations (that target Muslims in particular, because students can receive zakat, or charity tax) that he could ask to fund his studies. Since the amounts they give can form a large percentage for local courses, these organisations can easily make the difference between one more year of school or dropping out.

The catch is, you have to be aware of these sources of funding. That comes with being socially involved, and knowing organisations work and who is in charge. Navigating bureaucracy and red tape also involves some communication, interpersonal and management skills. And when it comes to writing that appeal letter, good language skills (whether English or Malay, but English is preferred) basically, make you look good.

And if you come from a background that is not conducive to the development of all these skills, you don't have the cultural capital to move up. This concept actually comes from Pierre Bourdieu, who pointed to the knowledge, skills, education and privileges that people in a higher social status have, which allows them to succeed in the current educational system.

Parents transmit to them the necessary attitudes ("Education is the most important thing you can work for") and knowledge ("Here's a list of organisations and people that you can write to for funding"). And cultural capital takes time to accumulate and embody, because it involves the priming of one's character and way of thinking (Bourdieu calls this 'habitus') to be sensitive to certain influences.

Even my friends from Kenya, Zimbabwe and Ethiopia tell me that even within their country, it's those with access to computers, printing facilities and information on the Internet that can afford to search for scholarships, make applications and eventually leave the country on a scholarship. Applying for a scholarship itself already requires some cultural capital.

So, back to my friend. He was surprised when I listed out some of the organisations that I benefited from, because he simply didn't know. Anyway, I hope he can finish what he wants to someday, inshallah.

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