Christine, Wondering

Random Musings of a Human Becoming

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Cultural Privilege

The majority of my extended maternal family are not in the bracket you would call financially privileged in the traditional sense, and those who are have only recently become so. The now-grown-up grandkids were educated in the state school system, and we all went through times when our parents had cash flow problems. We certainly weren't brought up feeling wealthy. And I know I deeply appreciate the help (and presents!) my parents are able to give me now that they have reached a comfortable financial state.

However, there are other forms of privilege. In biology, 'privilege' is any advantage that a parent organism provides for its offspring (the nutrition and safe growing environment of an egg are a privilege a mother bird gives to its chicks, for example). Social animals may also invest their own time in teaching and training their young; another privilege. Humans have taken the latter to the extreme, dedicating amazing amounts of time to this process. This cultural investment in children is supposed to prepare them for living in the culture in which the parents were raised, continuing the culture and ensuring that the child is accepted.

Different parents do this in different ways and to different extents. In the sociology of teaching, the quantity of preparation a child receives towards joining our culture's school system is known as 'cultural capital'. Children who come to school having been exposed to reading and writing, given preliminary education, and taught that education is important have a high cultural capital. Children who come to school from families where education is not valued and who have no prior experience with education have a low cultural capital (this sounds judgemental on the surface but it's not supposed to; it's merely a way of quantifying how prepared a child is for the start of their formal schooling, and it's a strong indicator of whether the child will need extra help to meet expected education standards). The amount of cultural capital that parents can give generally depends on their own level of education and the cultural capital that their parents in turn provided.

On Saturday night, a large portion of Mum's side of the family got together for a party. It happened to coincide with Western Australia's state election, and after dinner we switched the TV on to see how it was going. It turned out to be very interesting - the two major parties won nearly equal numbers of seats so that neither has a clear majority, and we now have a hung parliament, so the premiership will go to whichever major party can broker a deal with the minor parties or the independents and create a majority. The commentating panel was stumped and the computer system they were using went heywire, so the family had a lively and fascinating discussion about politics, the WA political system in general, history and so on. It was great fun, but what I noticed most was the effect it had on the children. There were five children there - my siblings aged 12 and 10, and my cousins aged 15, 11 and 10, along with about 20 adults aged 22 to ~82. The kids were sitting down on the floor, beside or at the feet of the various adults, and not just listening to but participating in the discussion. My family have always been very into children's rights, and children are highly valued and given the ability to participate fully in family discussions. The kids were asking questions, drawing conclusions, creating analogies, and learning more about our parliamentary system in two hours than they would have in an entire term in school.

And it really highlighted something that I already knew, but hadn't fully appreciated - while my childhood was not financially privileged, my extended family was able to provide me and my siblings and cousins with an incredible level of cultural privilege. I realised that every one of those ~20 adults either has a university degree or is working towards one (and several of them have more than one). We have explored a wide range of academic fields, adopted a wide range of belief and value systems and drawn varying conclusions about contentious issues. When combined into one conversation, it's a formiddable quantity of cultural capital being passed on to the children who grow up in that academically charged environment.

I'm very grateful for that, and it was very rewarding to see the younger members of the generation receiving the ongoing benefits of the process. I hope it can continue for the children still to come.


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