Cultural Capital at the Top

My educated guess is that the class divide that seems to have become so normalized economically is going to become ever more sharply reflected in the cultural capital of education. I think this will first happen in the institutional capital of universities, particularly in the way they represent learning. These new emerging class divisions will turn on technology.

More and more, I think, online education will come to be seen as analogous to the large lecture halls of the public research universities and the community colleges. That is, as cost and labor saving techniques by and large inappropriate to the higher reaches of the hierarchy. Elite institutions will use distance education, but only as a supplement to their experiential pedagogy.

It won’t be perfectly clear cut– what social phenomena ever is? — but increasingly the class divide will be reflected in the relative pedagogical weight of experiential, ‘hands on’ education, and distance education. At the top, cultural capital will be accumulated in small workshop seminars and in various forms of professional collaboration; at the bottom, via online courses.

I think you get a hint of this in Yale’s ongoing attempt to redefine its Architecture program to reflect what the American Institute of Architecture Students calls “a culture of optimism, respect, sharing, engagement and innovation” (“New Blueprint for Architecture” Inside Higher Ed, October 19, 2009). The reforms are understandably oriented towards undoing the old “work until you drop” model.

That’s a good thing, no doubt. Most subtlety, though, the changes all seem to suggest an emphasis on the sorts of educational work that can only be accomplished in person. “Students will be able to spend a semester in New York City taking courses,” says Dagmar Ritcher, architecture chair, “working at internships and “networking with alumni who are very active in practice there.”

As an online teacher I have to be concerned about the ways that new communication technologies tend to magnify, not simply reproduce, socioeconomic inequity. I think we can teach writing online as well as the traditional classroom. More and more, though, elite institutions will distinguish themselves by the social cultural capital we cannot provide our students at a distance.

About Ray Watkins

I was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, at Our Lady of the Lake Hospital. I grew up in Houston, as a part of what we only half-jokingly call the Cajun Diaspora. At a certain point during the Regan administration, I had to leave, so I served in the Peace Corps, Philippines, from 1987-89. I didn't want to return to the United States just yet, so I moved to Paris, France, where I lived for three years or so. I then moved back to Austin, Texas, where I had received my Masters Degree, and (eventually) began a Ph.D., which I completed in 1999. I spent a year at Temple University and then accepted a position at Eastern Illinois University where I worked until May of 2006. I now work exclusively on line (although that may change) for Johns Hopkins, the Art Institute Online, and I can be reached most easily via email: raywatkins [that 'at' symbol]

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