Albert Andersen Øydvin (Norway, UWC AC 2010-2012)
Term is coming to an end. IB frenzy escalates. Soon I and everybody else are going to leave this place. It is a bit sad, but most of all it seems right. There is a time for everything, and now is a time to move on. To live lives. Build futures. Change the world. That is not to say that I haven’t had a great time here. I have. It’s been an experience I would give to everyone if I had a chance. I hope I can give it to some. It has changed me, not fundamentally, but still considerably. At the end of these two great years there is still something I want to talk about. Something UWC is lacking, a flaw. I am, in good UWC spirit, going to make a critique. At the moment I think that’s the most valuable I can do for the movement. I want to touch on some dirty words; free will, cultural capital, class, leaders of tomorrow. I want to tear down some of what I call “liberal myths” and hopefully provoke a little bit. Or not. If anyone does get offended that is alright, but this is not meant as a critique of individuals as much as it is meant as a critique of a system.
The concept of cultural capital was coined by the French sociologist and socialist Pierre Bourdieu. It is basically a way of describing how our cultural preferences are, if not determined, then at least heavily influenced by our socio-economic background. For Bourdieu there is no such thing as “neutral” art, music, food or other cultural expressions. The idea of art for the sake of art or that something is just “good” becomes meaningless. Instead every form of cultural expression have a distinct class character. Sometimes these are more visible than other cases. An obvious example is the contrast between American country music and classical music or jazz. They clearly have different audiences and the working class redneck and the upper class intellectual scorns the other form equally much. This class character is often determined by the historical pretext and can often be quite arbitrary. There is for example no significant reason in today’s society why for example football is seen as much more of a working class sport than tennis is. And there is no “natural” reason why people born into working class families shouldn’t enjoy tennis, they might very well love it (Billy Elliot anyone?). The class characters, or stereotypes, are still there though, and there is statistical evidence to suggest cultural preferences are to a large extent determined by our class background. This has probably a lot to do with exposure and peer pressure. The main reason why I never started playing tennis (before I joined UWC) is probably because I never was exposed to a tennis court and nobody in my little village had ever played it. Already here we can see one of the one of the “liberal myths” that are quite prominent in the UWC movement starting to crack: The belief in the free and independent individual, capable of “objective” or “critical” thinking. We are not really that free to choose our own cultural tastes and political opinions, in many ways they are predetermined by others.
Secondly and probably more importantly is the idea that cultural expressions with different class characteristics also contain different levels of status. Here something is seen as good or bad in a general and non-subjective way depending on what class characteristic it has. On other words; it is what society at large thinks about it. A good example is the garbage man. Even though he might enjoy his job of taking people’s trash subjectively he is still forced to recognize that society at large sees his job as a low-status job. That means that his work is valued less than for example the work of a doctor. And somewhat surprisingly he often agrees with this. He might like his job, far better than he would like working as a doctor, but it’s not a “good” job. Although I would say that he does an extremely important job that deserves, if not as high a wage/status as a doctor (due to education cost etc.), a much better wage/status than he currently have he wouldn’t necessarily agree with me in that. We can see how this starts becoming political as the question of value and money are equated and comes into the picture.
However, much more relevant to UWC is the role cultural capital plays in the educational system. As said some cultural preferences are given higher status than others. I think this is embodied in the educational system and gives some people an advantage over others. Teachers will often, and I have seen many examples of this myself, give more positive feedback to students with similar cultural preferences to themselves or preferences they see as “good”. The way one have to behave, the language one have to master and the way you have to study corresponds a lot more to the reality of kids from educated and affluent backgrounds than to the reality of working class kids. There has been done studies in Western European countries, for example Britain, where the researchers have found that kids from working class families experience the “language” that is used, or expected to be used, in school is a very different “language” from the one they are used to in their families. This obviously has an enormously demotivating effect on the working class kids as they feel like there is no arena for their identity in the school system and like “everyone else” is speaking a code they don’t understand. While typical middle/upper class types of knowledge, “academic knowledge” is valued and praised, “manual” and more practical forms of knowledge, often associated with the working class, is devalued. In UWC we can see this reflected in the fact that the vast majority of the UWCs offer only a purely academic education, the IB, designed to get us into university. Again we can see that some certain “liberal myths” start to deteriorate. Firstly the idea that academic results are a fair measure of hard work, talent and intelligence. For me they are well as much a measure at how good one is a fitting into a certain set of liberal values. However, these are often the main criteria for selection (yes, there are exceptions, like in Norway, but even here academics are very important) for an UWC school. This leads me to the third “liberal myth”: Diversity.
One of the things I really find strange about going to an UWC school is that even though people are from all over the world it still feels like everyone is pretty similar. Especially obvious this becomes when I compare the atmosphere to my old school. There we had both academic and vocational education so there was always a mix of kids from working class backgrounds, intellectual backgrounds and some from affluent backgrounds. In many ways it seemed like there was more diversity in opinion and cultural preference there than here. I’m sure that partly has to do with the fact that we signed up to this movement with similar motivations and ideals, but it has also to do with the lack of a real socio-economic diversity among the students. I think that as long as we don’t manage to integrate vocational education into the UWC movement in a more efficient way, where “manuals” and “theorists” get to mingle we will lack that crucial diversity that we pride ourselves with and that is the basis of our whole education. Our diversity has to reflect the diversity of the real world, and then it cannot just be limited nations, cultures and peoples, but it also has to include socio-economic classes.
Finally this leads to my last point which is about “the leaders of the future”. It might not be pronounced directly, but in this statement I feel that there is a big presumption that we as part of the UWC movement are supposed to go out and become powerful and important in tone way or another and then “help” the rest of the world. I’m talking philanthropy, big business, politics, top academics, diplomacy etc. I don’t think this is the way to make the world a better place. Simply because I don’t believe it is possible to change any kind of system from above. It is not possible become powerful (politically, economically, culturally etc.) and then use that power to insert the UWC ethos into everyone beneath us. Instead of changing peoples’ lives for them we should aim at helping them changing their own lives, in collaboration with them. And here comes the crucial thing; in order to do that I see no reason why we have to go to university. A car mechanic might just as well help improve his local community as a university professor or a company owner. In terms of empowering people to take power over and improve their lives money or cultural capital doesn’t necessarily help us. It might actually make it harder for us as it alienates us from the people we have to work with. To sum it up, we need loads of small local leaders in all walks of life, not some big removed leaders with loads of cash.
PS: I realize that this article might be a bit AC specific. Please do comment on this, it would be nice to hear perspectives from other schools! And also, I’m quite a liberal guy, I just don’t like myths.
-United Words Team-