Recently I listened to a podcast that I thought was going to be a nice, fluffy piece of celebrity trashing. Instead, it turned out to be a thoughtful exploration of the rules of social classes and the power of cultural capital.
Hidden Brain’s Never Go to Vegas, and Other Unspoken Rules of Being an A-Lister started out a little fluffy, talking about Hollywood parties and the clique-ish top-tier of the celebrity world. But then it veered into uncomfortable territory when it began examining what researcher Elizabeth Currid-Halkett calls the new Aspirational Class: people with money who spend it not on flashy things like cars and Rolexes (remember the 80s?) but on subtler, less visible things like yoga classes, organic food, and education savings accounts. In her book, The Sum of Small Things, Currid-Halkett even cites breastfeeding as one of the expensive yet invisible ways that this new social class chooses to invest its resources. Another is health care spending, which should be an eye-opener because kids get sick, a lot, and it seems like a no-brainer that you would seek treatment for them, but health care is actually one of the areas in which the divide between classes is very visible.
She makes two points that resonated with me:
- Cultural Capital — our resources in time, education, money, experiences — is deployed in hundreds of small decisions that accumulate over time until their impact creates a fairly substantial gulf between classes. Choosing to breastfeed, putting money in an education savings account, signing junior up for piano lessons or making sure he takes part in the school’s band program, reading to your child every night, finding a tutor when he struggles in math, making sure he gets only organic fruits and veggies — or that he gets fruits and veggies at all…these things reinforce social position in ways that are not especially overt, yet their impact is undeniable. They shape not only what children end up doing, but also the expectations they will have for their own children.
- When you’re inside a bubble, it’s hard to see that you’re inside a bubble. From the inside, all these things appear “normal;” everyone is doing them, after all. It becomes nearly impossible to see how your resources allow you to make the types of decisions that have these kinds of far-reaching consequences. Consider, though, that a parent working multiple jobs may be too tired — or not present at all — to read to her child each night. She may not have the luxury of breastfeeding because she can’t afford a breast pump and her supervisor wouldn’t give her the half-hour to pump anyway. Maybe the family doesn’t eat a lot of fruits and veggies — let alone organic ones — because the closest “grocery store” is actually a gas station mini-mart. Piano lessons never occur to her because she never took piano, and the cost of an instrument to participate in band is high — more than she can afford. Educational savings is a little pie-in-the-sky when you can barely make rent, or your car payment, or your health insurance premiums, assuming you have health insurance, which is a pretty big assumption. Activities within any type of bubble are not normal, they are normalized by the activities of everyone else in the same bubble.
For teachers and administrators, being aware of your bubble is of paramount importance, both so you can understand and identify your own privilege and assumptions, and so you can adjust instruction and support for people whose bubble is different than yours. And understanding the idea of normalization as opposed to “normal” helps us be less judgmental and more analytical about the barriers to learning.