Saturday, February 6, 2010

Cultural Capital

There is an assumption that all children begin kindergarten at the same starting line. Any achievement they later attain is therefore a product of their intelligence, right?


Children don't start at point "A" and proceed to point "Z." It would be more correct to say that some children start at point "A" while others start at point "C" or point "E." What determines their starting point is something called cultural capital.

Cultural capital is access to experiences that enable kids to succeed in school, particularly on tests, and even more particularly on standardized tests. Check out this kindergarten readiness list. Note that it assumes a number of things, like access to puzzles, crayons and scissors and exposure to shapes and colors. At its core, it assumes that children entering kindergarten will have had some sort of preschool experience, something that many children don't have because they can't afford it.

Cultural capital is closely correlated with wealth. The higher up the economic scale you go, the more experiences you can provide for your children. These experiences go a long way toward preparing kids for school and supporting their achievement while in school. These experiences don't have to be earth shattering -- a trip to the zoo provides a wealth of new information for the brain -- but it is by no means a sure thing that all children will have been to a zoo by the time they start kindergarten.

A zoo trip is dependent on the parents' ability to pay for such experiences. If you are lucky enough to live in St. Louis, you can go to the zoo for free (Grant's Farm, too), but in our community it costs $10 per person to go to the zoo. And this, keep in mind, is a small zoo without elephants, bears, large primates or even wolves. It costs our family $50 to go to the zoo. There is a much larger, better zoo about 2 hours away from us. It also costs roughly $50, plus the added expense of gas and the hassle of a four hour drive, to visit. If your yearly income is low, or if you are a single parent, this may be well out of your reach.

The higher up the salary scale you go, the more likely you are to take vacations. And to include places like museums and aquariums and other educational sites in those vacations. Last year we took our kids to Mt. Rushmore and Yellowstone National Park. We have also been to Arizona (where I grew up) several times and we always make a point to visit the Sonora Desert Museum. We were blessed with some generous financial assisitance from our parents; without it, we probably couldn't have done any of these things. As it was, they were a finacial sacrifice for us, but we felt they were important experiences for our kids to have. For some, though, the financial cost would be not just a sacrifice but an impossibility.

One aspect of cultural capital is access to books. Books in the home, access to libraries, value placed on the reading of books. This is an area in which we can level the playing field. Children with access to books can read about places and cultures other than their own. They can build their vocabularies. They can be exposed to ideas outside the sphere of their experiences. Reading offers them the opportunity to fill in gaps in our experiences. Children with access to a variety of print media (magazines, newspapers, books, e-books, etc.) develop greater ability to transfer information between contexts -- in other words, they can take something they read in a book and apply it on a standardized test more easily, or they can remember something they read in a magazine article and use it as evidence when writing an essay.

We may not have the money to send our families to Aruba in February or take the kids on a tour of European capitals, but anyone can visit a library.

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