Cultural Capital

Bryant & Stratton College Second Life Commencement
Bryant & Stratton College Second Life Commencement

A few months ago, I blogged on how no-frills universities were catching on and have been reading on how higher education may be in a state of impending crisis.  Plus, I saw how one university was offering commencement in the online virtual realm of Second Life.  All of this had made me think about the future of the university::

  • Will the traditional “university” setting give way to the “business park” mode?
  • Will online degrees become increasingly prevalent?
  • How will the functions {research, teaching, community engagement, etc.} of the university change in society over time?
  • Should the university be treated like any other business and at what price?

I’ve always seen universities as communities, rare places where one interacts with others about ideas and knowledge. In the mid-1990s, I had the chance to be a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley and remember it being a place open to inderdisciplinary perspectives, where interesting research was being done and intelligent conversations could be had.  I read somewhere that a few decades ago, the Stanford University Faculty Club was once a vibrant place where professors from the various schools and departments would kick around ideas.  I was talking to a recently retired computer science professor who was at my alma-mater, UC Irvine, in the 1970s, recalling conversations and debates with post-Marxist historians and scholars in the humanities.  From my perspective, it’s the community that a university creates that matters and I feel that uses of technology should be working not only on online instruction but on helping to foster a virtual intellectual community.  In terms of non-traditional settings and online instruction, I think there are challenges of legitimacy.  Online and “business park” universities taught primarily by adjuncts need to address the quality issue and ensure that the pedagogy is not just having students jump through hoops.  Students also need to adjust to learning in these environments.  I used synchronous chat in a recent class.  I heard from students I never heard from in the face-to-face discussions and it became clear who prepared and who didn’t.  Some students were quite candid in confessing this in front of everyone, virtually.

The “crisis” that universities face in my book is not just a financial one, but also one of relevance.  Relevance to individuals and to society.  While there is a business aspect to running a university, treating it too much like a business by focusing on efficiency metrics and revenue opportunities, rather than how it fits into a community structure, is a sure-fire way to balkanize faculty.  I think it will be challenging for universities to keep an infrastructure in place and deliver value that students want.  I do expect a shakeout, especially in a globalized world connected to the Internet, unless universities adapt to being more competitive and rethink pricing.

Finally, I think universities can learn from the writer Ray Bradbury, who thinks libraries are more important than universities and a staunch library advocate::

“Libraries raised me…I don’t believe in colleges and universities. I believe in libraries because most students don’t have any money. When I graduated from high school, it was during the Depression and we had no money. I couldn’t go to college, so I went to the library three days a week for 10 years.”

It makes me wonder how ideas like Chris Anderson’s “free-conomics” could be applied to universities, an idea I’m mulling over and would love my colleagues to chime in on.  Can a university business model be created that offers up free education, but brings in revenues through non-tuition means, begging the question, what business is the university really in?  Is a degree the “product” or is “lifelong learning,” as in the building cultural capital?  I leave with this Anderson quote, with my mind on how free knowledge, rather than free electricity, could transform society and improve democracy::

“What if electricity had in fact become virtually free? The answer is that everything electricity touched — which is to say just about everything — would have been transformed. Rather than balance electricity against other energy sources, we’d use electricity for as many things as we could — we’d waste it, in fact, because it would be too cheap to worry about.”

Twitterversion:: What’s the future of higher ed? Can it be #Free: #ChrisAnderson #freeconomy ideas? Peddling degrees or lifelong learning? @Prof_K

Song:: The Headmaster Ritual – The Smiths

Toronto Now magazine racks, Shuter & Dalhousie. ~Moonwire on Flickr

Crossposting:: An abridged, less sociology-heavy version is here.

Notes from north of 49ºN.

Social capital is nothing new to ThickCulture, with quite a few posts on the topic, including this one by José, Trust is for Suckers.  When I teach sociology, I draw heavily on Pierre Bourdieu and have the class get a sense of how different forms of capital interact.  Cultural capital has always interested me {here’s a great overview of it by Weininger & Lareau}, despite going crazy trying to explain graphs like these::

Bourdieu on taste, using dimensions of economic & cultural capital.
Bourdieu on taste, using dimensions of economic & cultural capital.

I’ve used this very graph, but I’ve always wanted a way to engage students in a discussion of cultural capital that they could relate to.  So, I was catching up on Macleans reading and found articles on Canada’s smartest cities. It brings up an interesting question of how learning capacity affects the local economic development. The Composite Learning Index, using ideas developed by UNESCO, gauges a city’s ability to foster lifelong learning::

“Until now, Canada’s score had been on the upswing, from 76 in 2007 to 77 last year. Today that number has dropped to 75, precariously close to the lowest level recorded, which was 73, in 2006. The figures are based on the annual Composite Learning Index, which gives every Canadian community (some 4,719 in all) a score according to how it supports lifelong learning.

Here’s a link to a selected list of cities. Calgary tops the list at 89. In Ontario, Guelph, Barrie, Ottawa, Kitchener, and Oshawa all beat out Toronto, tied for 13th at 80.  Poor Toronto. One article compared Windsor, Ontario {languishing in the index} to Québec City {one of the most-improved}, with the latter on an economic upswing.

Quebec City’s unemployment has fallen markedly, from 6.8 per cent in 2006 to 5.2 per cent in 2009. And while Windsor’s total learning score was going nowhere, its jobless rate shot up, from 10.2 per cent to 15.2 per cent over the same period.

The story is a bit more complicated, given that Québec City had had 50 years to reinvent itself after its economy collapsed, while Windsor is still watching its current industrial base crumble. While the learning index may be a proxy for resilience of its population to withstand exogenous shocks and the trials and tribulations of everyday life, one fact remains is that those at the top tend to be growing cities with wealthier citizenry. This pattern also follows the “most cultured” cities.

While the index is a tool that can be used diagnostically to help policymakers make decisions on spending, comparing cities with a weighted score seems a bit misguided.  It would be interesting to create a Bourdieuean index based on his forms::
  1. Embodied.  The skills, abilities, & knowledge that someone has.
  2. Objectified.  The objects that transmit culture and knowledge.
  3. Institutionalized. Institutional recognition of an individual’s skills/abilities/knowledge.
So, the challenge would be to find good indicators of or proxies for these forms.
The Canadian Council on Learning created this graph showing the relationship between the index {as a measure of cultural capital} and socioeconomic index for Canadian cities.  While I do think that there are relationships between cultural, social, and financial capitals, I think the processes by which these relations are formed and fostered within various contexts {i.e., “fields”/”champs”} would be extremely valuable for policy decisions.

Correlation between the CLI and the social and economic well-being index, 2009
Correlation between the CLI and the social and economic well-being index, 2009

Twitterversion:: #newblogpost Hey Canada…How smart is your town? @macleansmag article on Composite Learning Index popularizing sociology?  @Prof_K

Song:: Town Called Malice – The Jam