Can Young’s concept of powerful knowledge, together with Bernstein’s theory of horizontal and vertical discourse, help to overcome some of the limitations of Bourdieu’s theory of cultural capital in explaining the connection between lower socio-economic status and underachievement?



Introduction: How do we know lower-SES students are underachieving in the UK, and why is this important?

Part 1: How far does Bourdieu’s theory of habitus, capital and field enable us to understand how SES affects educational achievement?

Part 2: Young’s call for powerful Knowledge: scaling the epistemological ladder with Bernstein’s theory of vertical and horizontal knowledge.

Part 3: Can cultural capital and habitus change for students, especially lower-SES students, in the current UK curriculum? A focus on empirical research.

Conclusions: Can teachers promote powerful knowledge for lower-SES students. And, if they can, what might be some consequences?





Introduction: How do we know lower-SES students are underachieving in the UK, and why is this important?


The UK government recognises that England and Wales are in a knowledge economy and that its education system (especially the HE system) needs to produce knowledge workers to remain competitive in an increasingly globalised world (DBIS, 2016). We need to educate our youth to work with knowledge in a greater sense than ever before (OECD, 2005). Yet despite this functional imperative to educate the wider population, the state school system seems to be reproducing that which ideologically it should be committed to eradicating: (dis)advantages that lead to lower social economic status learners (lower-SES learners) leaving with lower educational achievement (EA) (Sadonvik, 2000: cited in Moore, 2006; Harwell et al 2017).


Accurately defining the proportion of lower-SES students in the UK is problematic, especially when such definitions are reduced to measure government targets. The DFE’s current operational variable of SES in relation to educational achievement is the receiving of free school meals (FSM), which totals about 21% of the student population (DFE 2013). If we were to take wider material measurements of child poverty, though, then 30% of children are deemed lower-SES (DWP, 2012). However, in terms of self-identifying with lower-SES culture, some surveys even demonstrate that most of the UK population, 60%, identifies as being lower-SES which further challenges SES classification (Ormston et al, 2015).


Having identified some proportions of lower-SES learners, we need to measure how they experience lower educational achievement than their higher-SES peers. Educational achievement in the UK has until most recently been measured as gaining 5 A*-C GCSEs. This stands at 42% for those with FSM (lower-SES students) against a 70% equivalent for higher-SES students (DFE, 2015). Recent changes to UK league tables to attempt to account for academic progress of students (‘Progress 8’) still measure this achievement-gap as 41% for lower-SES students against 53% for higher-SES (DFE, 2017). Ultimately the facts are stark: lower-SES learners underachieve in the UK education system. For societies to thrive, they need to give as many people the best opportunities to flourish as possible. To effectively curtail the life chances of children from lower-SES backgrounds is both economically and morally damaging. Yet even beyond an economically functional model of education, those who live and teach in a Western democracy might rightly believe in Bernstein’s creed that education is: ‘the right to individual enhancement; the right to be included socially, intellectually, culturally, personally; [and] the right to participate’ (Bernstein, 2000: 25).

However, outside of academic communities, lower-SES underachievement is largely an individualised narrative; such failure is still commonly attributed to deficits in either cognitive capacity or cultural capital (Bernstein, 2000: xx). So, what are some sociological perspectives that challenge these individualising narratives? And how effective are these perspectives at explaining and predicting and ultimately providing some solutions for this failure?

To attempt to address this we will begin with a brief sketch of Bourdieu’s theories of habitus and cultural capital, considering criticisms that his theory is too deterministic in explaining the structural reproduction that leads to lower-SES achievement. In response to this criticism we will examine Bernstein’s exploration of the principles of pedagogic transmission through the discourse of vertical and horizontal knowledge. Ultimately, having then critiqued the arbitrary nature of high-SES cultural capital, we will see how Young’s call for powerful knowledge might empower lower-SES learners to affect a change in their levels of educational achievement.




Part 1: How far does Bourdieu’s theory of habitus, capital and field enable us to understand how SES affects educational achievement?



Analysis of how social class affects educational achievement has been at the heart of British sociology for the past fifty years (Whitty, 2001). While others were celebrating structuralism as a method for explaining, amongst other things, educational underachievement, Bourdieu had realised its limitations and tried to deal with them. As a post-structuralist, he desired to escape from the reductionism of the ‘ritual either/or choice between objectivism and subjectivism in which the social sciences [had] allowed themselves to be trapped’ (Bourdieu, 1977: 4). Structuralist notions relating the reproduction of social inequality are linked with Marxist ideology which places the worker’s relationship to capital as the dominant factor in determining educational achievement. Marxists also posit a need for lower-SES citizens to develop greater class-consciousness that will lead to them opposing dominant systems and ideologies. In short, for Marxists class effectively influences everything (Cuff et al., 2008).


So, to develop a more sophisticated analysis of lower-SES educational underachievement than the traditional Marxists, Bourdieu attempts to move away from material constructions of power and inequality by introducing the concept of cultural capital (Crossley, 2008: cited in Grenfell, 2008). Cultural capital can be defined as objective, embodied, and as habitus (dispositions and attitudes). This can be seen in Moore’s (Moore et al., 2008) table below:

The forms of capital

Forms of capital/types Objectified Habitus (dispositions and attitudes) Embodied
CULTURAL Galleries, museums, libraries, concerts, etc. Knowledge of the canon, discrimination of genres and periods, the “rules of the game” Cultivated gaze, poise, taste, desire for the recognition of distinction


To investigate how cultural capital might affect educational achievement, we should be most interested in Bourdieu’s variable of habitus. The notion of cultural capital and habitus are, in themselves, seemingly straightforward concepts that have gained traction in a variety of disciplines, including as layman’s terms in common teaching parlance. Yet it should be noticed that Wacquant, a sociologist who worked closely with Bourdieu, warns that Bourdieu’s concepts are often only understood piecemeal (Wacquant, 1989). Therefore, at the very least we must note that Bourdieu nuances his concept of cultural capital as a formula interrelating habitus, capital and field:

[(habitus)(capital)] + field = practice (Bourdieu, 1986c: 101)

This equation states that practice results from the interaction between one’s dispositions (habitus) and one’s position in a field (capital), within the current state of play of that social arena (field). Ultimately, we cannot understand the practice of lower-SES students by habitus alone; the nature of the fields in which they are active is equally crucial.


Empirical study into how habitus and field are key in defining practice, particularly for lower-SES students, has been conducted by Lareau who considered how students approach the completion of homework. Lareau used participant-observation data to draw conclusions that the habitus of parents from lower-SES backgrounds meant they were less likely to assist in homework. Lareau theorized that they were less able to operate in this field, and unable to comply with school demands to aid students with homework and other academic activity (Lareau, 1987). This research highlights Bourdieu’s assertion that ‘working-class people expect objects to fulfil a function’ whilst those free from economic necessities are able to develop a habitus that is more responsive to academic fields (Bourdieu, 1984: p70). In other words, the habitus of lower-SES students and their parents means that they are unable to fully develop the practice of using conceptual terms necessary in academia compared to their higher-SES peers. To qualify this, later research by Lareau found that working-class mothers actively rejected a construction of themselves as their children’s teachers (Lareau, 1999). Sullivan also theorised that such rejections of academic fields are sadly present in some lower-SES learners, who might understandably exclude themselves from situations where they are weak in the field (Sullivan, 2002).


These reflections on the lower-SES learner in an academic field reflect a key criticism of Bourdieu’s theory of habitus – that whilst it is somewhat dynamic, it does not truly consider social change and is instead too socially deterministic. Even though his notion of habitus attempts to transcend the dichotomy of agent-less structures and free-acting agents, it can be seen contributing towards narratives that individualise the underachievement of lower-SES learners (Giroux, 1983a). We will look forward to one possible form of social change in the form of Young’s theory of powerful knowledge later in this paper.


So, having very briefly framed cultural capital within Bourdieu’s interrelated theory of habitus, practice and field, and considered a possible academic field where lower-SES students might struggle, how might we further empirically identify how cultural capital operates for lower-SES students? Both Dumais and Marteleto dishearteningly identify how inequality in SES magnifies EA gaps. Marteleto used multilevel models with 2006 PISA data to suggest that the more unequal the society, the greater the magnification of inequality in educational achievement (Marteleto, 2013). He highlighted how schools alone cannot address gaps in cultural capital. To help refine our understanding of which cultural capital activities might have the most impact on educational achievement, Dumais used data from the National Education Longitudinal Study from 1988 to identify how SES is a greater variable than gender for differences in educational achievement for particular activities (Dumais, 2002). Further empirical evidence that focuses more upon how cultural capital affects educational achievement for lower-SES students comes from Gaddis, who attempts to operationalise habitus through attitudinal variables that focus on the self-efficacy of students (Gaddis, 2013). Through this, Gaddis states that habitus should be seen as the mediator between cultural capital and EA. This presentation of habitus as a form of mediation between cultural capital and EA interestingly links to further research by Dumais who questions if parental habitus is more important than children’s cultural capital in determining educational success (Dumais, 2005). As her qualitative research focused on teacher perception of students, it is apparent that habitus, more than embodied cultural capital, is necessary to know in Bourdieu’s words ‘the rules of the game’ of school achievement.


So we can see the issue for lower-SES learners is that cultural capital only seems to mediate conceptual language in fields of academic study. Bourdieu claims that this lack of power and agency in low-SES learners is compounded by their inability to detect the essentially arbitrary nature of high-SES habitus and the fields in which it is successful.


The negative impact on lower-SES learners who struggle to operate in academic fields due to lower-SES habitus is conceptualised as ‘symbolic violence’, a key Bordieuan concept for how lower-SES learners suffer incompatibility of their habitus within schooling culture. Symbolic violence also stems from the school’s imperative to disconnect its own internal hierarchy of success and failure from ineffective teaching and apply it instead to class measures (Bernstein, 2000). The question we must ask is how do schools individualise failure and so therefore legitimise inequalities? Schools legitimise inequalities between social groups by presenting them as deriving from differential educational attainments. By presenting educational achievement as being primarily (if not entirely) based on innate ability plus effort, it legitimises an unjust inequality that leads to symbolic violence – failure in school becomes a sign of a personal failing, either through a lack of talent, or through parents who did not provide the appropriate background and support. The lack of fit becomes a personal failing (Schubert, 2008: 65: cited in Grenfell, 2008). In a series of fascinating participant-observations and interviews, Horvat et al. followed middle-class black girls in an elite school and saw that they endured symbolic violence in exchange for perceived membership with the elite institution (Horvat et al., 1999).  It seems that through symbolic violence that ‘social transmission of privilege is itself legitimised’ (Lamont et al., 1998: cited in Horvat et al., 1999: 115). Such a concept is particularly useful in allowing us to recognise that social facts cannot be studied in themselves: they can only be observed in their effects on people (Schubert, 2008: 64: cited in Grenfell, 2008). With this in mind, the final part of this paper will explore the empirical effects of symbolic violence on successful lower-SES students through the concept of ‘cleft habitus’. Of course, this concept raises a dominant criticism of Bourdieu, that his theory is unable to account for wider historic changes in how the lower-SES approach educational ambition, especially as Bourdieu himself raised himself from lowly beginnings to the high realms of elite academia in France.


So, it is on this note of discovering alternative ways of seeing things that we will now turn our attention to Young’s call to place powerful knowledge at the heart of the curriculum through his, and Bernstein’s, raising of epistemological questions.


Part 2: Young’s call for powerful Knowledge: scaling the epistemological ladder with Bernstein’s theory of vertical and horizontal knowledge.


Our discussion so far has tried to outline some of the ways that Bourdieu has attempted to explore how SES affects educational achievement. One main criticism was that Bourdieu’s assertions are still seen as somewhat reductionist since habitus is considered by some to be the product of social and economic processes (Alexander, 1995: cited in Fuchs, 2003). To escape this reductionism, and more pointedly to explore more precisely the causes of lower-SES educational underachievement, Bernstein extends the remit of Bourdieu’s thought by more closely considering questions of knowledge. He sees a gap in the work of Bourdieu where “there is very little systematic and specific analysis of the principles whereby a specific discourse is constituted or of the principles of its transmission” (Bourdieu, 1990, p167: cited in Harker et al., 1993). Since Bourdieu’s theory of social change is weak if not non-existent, perhaps such change might be found in Bernstein’s analysis of classroom discourse and the pedagogic device.


Before we very briefly outline how Bernstein theorises some of these specific discourses, it is important to credit Young for his recent work with the UK government that attempts to bring questions of curriculum and epistemology to an audience outside academia. Such questions about knowledge are necessarily contentious because they challenge basic assumptions of what it is to be educated, or to educate. They confront our very values, especially in how we frame lower-SES learners (Young, 2008). Some of these debates attack what Young calls social constructivism. Interestingly, perhaps due to his opposition to social constructivism, Young was painted as a traditionalist by White; Young robustly denied these claims. He was also criticised for having supposedly too much focus on philosophy, and not enough on what his ‘powerful knowledge’ would look like (White, 2012). Hopefully, through defining Bernstein’s concept of vertical knowledge and discourse, we will eventually demonstrate how a possible change in learner habitus might allow lower-SES learners better access to vertical knowledge, and therefore powerful knowledge.


Bernstein establishes differences in kinds of knowledge (which he also calls discourses) (Bernstein, 2000). Firstly, he identifies horizontal discourse as ‘local, segmentally organised, context-specific and dependent’. We might also informally acquire this kind of knowledge in a community such as the home. In comparison, he defines vertical discourse as ‘coherent, explicit and systematically principled structure’. This knowledge is formed in (but not limited to) formal school and study. Abstract knowledge is different from everyday discourse. A similar distinction in discourse was made by Durkheim who defined religious and everyday knowledge as sacred and profane respectively (Cuff et al., 2006). Young’s powerful knowledge intends to operate within vertical discourse, a concept that connects to Durkheim’s sacred discourse as something set-apart and perhaps forbidden (especially to lower-SES learners). Perhaps, also, this is why Young has a headteacher contribute to his work because he (like Bernstein) seeks to appropriately develop pedagogy and curricula to tangibly enact greater pedagogic rights for lower-SES learners.


A further distinction in vertical discourse also comes when it is divided into distinct types of knowledge structures: hierarchical knowledge structures and horizontal knowledge structures. A hierarchical knowledge structure is one that attempts to build upon and integrate knowledge at foundational levels. The aim is to create ‘very general propositions and theories’, such as those found in the natural sciences. A horizontal knowledge structure, in comparison, is ‘a series of specialised languages, each with its own specialised modes of interrogation and specialised criteria’, such as in the humanities. Bernstein defined the horizontal knowledge structures of the humanities as having ‘weak grammar’. This is because, in sociological as well as epistemological terms, weak grammar horizontal knowledge structures are associated with the fusion of ‘knowledge with knowing and the reduction of knowledge relations to the power relations between groups’. Therefore, ‘knowledge is reduced to experience and experience is determined by membership (‘identity’) within a structure of power relations (Moore, 2006: 41). This model here could be taking issue with Bourdieu’s theories of how learners position themselves in academic fields, and demonstrates how fundamental an understanding of epistemology is to improving the position of lower-SES learners in those fields.


So how might Bernstein’s theory about knowledge, especially the horizontal knowledge structures of the humanities, affect our considerations for how education should operate for lower-SES learners?


Essentially, powerful knowledge as defined by Young is the ability to perceive, and utilise, different ways of thinking. In doing so, learners of both lower and higher SES backgrounds will hopefully sense the arbitrary nature of the academic fields in which they operate. Young’s assertion of powerful knowledge is particularly useful because (as mentioned before) Bourdieu emphasises not only the arbitrary nature of cultural capital, but also that lower-SES learners fail to perceive its arbitrary nature. Therefore, focusing education on the need to gain powerful knowledge might enhance the ability of lower-SES learners to perceive, and perhaps challenge more systemically, wider systemic inequalities.


It is from this this desire for social change in education for lower-SES learners that social constructivism rose, a reductionist ideology which took knowledge as merely the standpoint of the knowers. According to Young (although he cautions about reducing curriculum questions to politics) reductionist theories of knowledge are superficially attractive to many on the left. This is because when knowledge is reduced to interests, standpoints, or even just knowers, then all kinds of emancipatory possibilities for lower-SES students are implied. This was a common trend for the ‘new sociologists’ in Britain the 1970s, and actually galvanised many teachers (Young, 2008). Social constructivism is also a reaction to the perceived arbitrary nature of high culture. The nature and power of high culture is that it operates by being seen as largely autonomous, and not just serving the needs of higher-SES citizens. It is the appearance of autonomy that ensures that it functions to legitimate and reproduce the inequalities of economic class (Boudieu 1984 in Gartman 2017.


However, to be successful, social constructivism had only two ways to go: either towards a politics that privileged the subordinate knowledge (including feminist and post-colonial as well as that of lower-SES), or, more disturbingly, a postmodern Nietzschean nihilism.  Such epistemological arguments were flawed because they were obsessively concerned with how individuals arrived at knowledge of the world, as if this was the knowledge problem. This lead to political arguments of choosing ‘white middle-class biases and prejudices’ on the one hand and ‘what students want’ (a consumer approach) on the other (ibid, 2008). Such ‘voice discourse’ becomes merely a rejection of any sociological account of knowledge that sees it more than a ‘field positioning strategy’ (ibid, 2008). In the face of this epistemological nihilism, some believe that we should adopt a scepticism that implies a notion of truth: ‘you do the best you can to acquire true beliefs, and what you say reveals what you believe’ (Williams 2002: 11: cited in Young, 2008).


There are stark criticisms of social constructivism. Cognitive scientists such as Dan Willingham say that critical thinking (powerful knowledge) requires a range of facts that span vertical knowledge (Kirby 2016: cited in Birbalsingh, 2016). It is not enough to simply conceptualise higher-level thinking skills prizing Bloom’s Taxonomy without a thorough grounding in the foundations for vertical knowledge and discourse for that subject. It is easy to evaluate the dinner you just eaten, but somewhat more difficult to understand causes of the French Revolution. Kirby also states that a breadth of knowledge, of how it connects in a more vertical fashion, is a far greater factor in educational achievement than SES (ibid, 2016). More philosophical and sociological criticisms state that social constructivism undermines any claims to objective knowledge or truth about anything; it denies the possibility of any better understanding, let alone of any better world (Young, 2008). So again, social constructivism does not really address what Bernstein and Young seek to offer, which is an empowered awareness of different ways of thinking to perceive the arbitrary nature of elite cultural capital.


Still, treasuring sincere subjectivity above the pursuit of objective truth is dangerous. Bourdieu states that habitus leads to the ‘illusion’ of ‘authentic sincerity’ as actions are still ‘fitted to…objective structures’ (Bourdieu, 1977: 214). English teachers are perhaps misrecognising ‘the arbitrary for the essential’ when they prize a skills-based curriculum for knowledge-poor lower-SES students (Maton 2008: cited in Grenfell, 2008). Amusingly yet wisely, and using the language of the profane to express concepts of the sacred, Frankfurt undermines the pursuit of sincerity as a viable alternative to pursuing objective reality. He argues that since a pursuit of sincerity, voice discourse, relies upon personal natures which are (of course) notoriously less stable than the natures of outer things, then sincerity itself is ‘bullshit’ (Frankfurt, 2005: cited in Young, 2008). In other words, sincerity in this instance cannot claim objective value in the outer world as truth. This should remind us of further criticism of Bourdieu who is hard-pressed to claim objectivity for any knowledge, including his own, since he so prominently declares that all culture is arbitrary and particularly that there exists no neutral basis or view point for declaring one type superior to others (Bourdieu, 1984: 32: cited in Gartman 2017).


Despite these criticisms, an outright dismissal of social constructivism is not useful. In the subject of geography, Catling stated children’s knowledge should be in dialogue with powerful knowledge to make them more ‘receptive’ to learning (Catling et al., 2011). The term ‘receptiveness’ is presented by Kyriacou as a necessary precursor for learning (Kyriacou, 1986). Such discourse must, however, be recognized as necessarily limited and probably conceptually wrong. It should also be seen as better than no engagement at all. This challenge was reasserted by Lambert who stated how the complexity and austere distance of theoretical knowledge demands much deferred gratification on the part of high-school children, something that lower-SES learners may lack the habitus to do (Lambert, 2015). Lambert thinks that lower-SES children lack the ability to defer gratification because they need to focus on the immediacies of survival and materialism, and therefore form a habitus that operates ineffectively in academic fields that value abstraction. The attempt to make meaningful connections between children’s knowledge and the remote disciplinary worlds was praised by Young as social realism, as opposed to social constructivism (Young, 2013). The value in this is that Young seeks to make systemic changes to a curriculum that encourages a way of thinking that allows learners of all demographics to recognise the arbitrary nature of cultural capital; that higher-SES learners are (currently) academically successful precisely because they possess cultural capital, not that they gain cultural capital because they are innately academically successful.


Part 3: Can cultural capital and habitus change for students, especially lower-SES students, in the current UK curriculum? A focus on empirical research.


So now we have outlined how Bernstein and Young apply both epistemological and political questions to Bourdieu’s theories of cultural capital and habitus, the question to which we must now turn is whether it is possible for learners to change their habitus to better access vertical knowledge as it exists in the current UK curriculum.


Our first question comes from DiMaggio, who wonders whether schools can change the cultural capital of their students. He posited the need to create more consumption of cultural capital, noting that cultural capital consumption varies by class (DiMaggio, 1978). Therefore, it is essential that lower-SES students are exposed to external cultural institutions to create ‘cultural consumers’ with an appetite for cultural capital beyond the remit of school (Kisda, 2014). However, students need more than exposure to the arts alone; students cannot be trained into acquiring cultural capital (Kaufman, 2004). Instead it is the participation in high culture, through creation or consumption, that is key for cultural capital acquisition, not just developing taste (Yaish, 2012). However, we should be aware that perhaps there is an overemphasis on the link between high cultural capital and educational achievement that is particularly French (Garnier, 1985: cited in Sullivan 2002). Perhaps in societies where class is more fluid, the need to possess high cultural capital to achieve academically is less pressing.


Another route to transmitting cultural capital is through student-teacher relationships which might form a synergy whereby habitus is changed through positive academic support. By investigating students’ access to (and activation of) educationally instrumental social and cultural capital resources, Barrett interviewed students who named specific teachers who inspired them to persevere in academically difficult situations (Barrett, 2012). Within this model, however, children can of course reject attempts to transmit cultural capital. Considering a mixed-sample questionnaire of summer activities, Chin demonstrated the importance of ‘children capital’ whereby children could make up for a lack of parental cultural capital or – more likely – impede and reject it (Chin, 2004). Since lower-SES cultural capital has been characterised as concerned more with material need and immediate want, it seems that lower-SES children require extraordinary will-power and vision to think outside the fields of survival in which many operate.


As for the question as to whether parents transmitted cultural capital more effectively on a passive or active basis, Jaeger explored the Danish education system. His qualitative studies, after controlling for SES variables, seem to demonstrate that students with high levels of cultural capital and (critically) academic ability express preference for curriculums that are cultural capital heavy (Jaeger, 2009).  Jaeger then later developed this model to explore how higher-SES parents monitor and modify their cultural capital investments in their children, which then lead to greater returns for cultural capital for higher-SES families and learners (Jaeger, 2016).


While this research seems to suggest cultural capital can be changed, a qualification is still needed. Bernstein states that ‘habitus is known only by its output, not its input (Bernstein 2000: 133: cited in Moore, 2006). We cannot really know what habitus is because it is a conceptualisation for the processes in which someone makes sense of the world. Simply replacing the variables of cultural capital is not enough. The Bordieuan scholar, Grenfell, warns us against seeing Bourdieu as overly emancipatory (Grenfell, 2010) as the power and presence of habitus and cultural capital in common vernacular belie their existence as abstract models of thought for what is actually a mediating process, not necessarily a distinct variable that can be adjusted at source.












Conclusions: Can teachers promote powerful knowledge for lower-SES students. And, if they can, what might be some consequences? 


If we are to conclude on some consequences of promoting powerful knowledge for lower-SES students, we need to consider whether teachers might be able to plan powerful knowledge in their own curriculums so that lower-SES learners might be empowered to eventually affect their own change.


For Bernstein, individual teachers are still able to promote vertical knowledge; the pedagogic device unites context-bound meaning with other contexts and abstracting concepts (Hugo 2006: cited in Moore 2006). However vertical discourse is not consumed at the point of its contextual delivery, but rather is an on-going process over extended time (Bernstein, 1999). This is another reason why conventional classroom observations are problematic, as the learning of powerful knowledge is not possible to observe in one-off lessons, let alone in twenty minutes of ‘expected progress’. This fallacy of observation is also mocked by Alan Bennett in his scathing play The History Boys. In it he demonstrates how intelligent lower-SES students are able to successful ‘game’ the examination system into Oxbridge by memorising ‘gobbets’ of knowledge (Bennett, 2004). Bennett recognises that school observers are impressed more by external performance measures, especially those which infer elite cultural capital. However, this is not vertical knowledge; it is not powerful knowledge. And it is powerful knowledge that both lower and higher SES students need to become aware of the fields in which they compete.


Powerful knowledge should lead to the defamiliarisation of students’ worlds by presenting them with alternative ways of perceiving with possibility (Young, 2008). A more Platonic fashion of terming this is that the task of education is to ‘devise the simplest and most effective manner of turning the mind away from its fascination with the world of becoming and make it capable of bearing the sight of real abstraction’ (Hugo, 2006: 50: cited in Moore, 2006). While current defamiliarisation in terms of perceiving abstract art exists as a happy experience for higher-SES students who might (but not always) enjoy more stable backgrounds than lower-SES students, such defamiliarisation is a more painful experience for lower-SES students who suffer from cleft habitus. Currently, to successfully recontextualise vertical knowledge requires, for some lower-SES students, arduous change in habitus to the academic dispositions that can make this possible. Therefore, and more ideally, curriculum integration of powerful knowledge that teaches ways of thinking that demonstrate the arbitrary nature of culture capital and academic fields might duly disturb the lives of the powerful as well.


So if we are successful in tackling the educational underachievement of lower-SES students through changing their habitus, then how do we expect them to deal with the cleft between their old environments and their new habitus? Firstly, on a social level, increased participation at university has created a division between elite and mass institutions whereby elite universities require students to devise their own questions for study, whereas, as in this author’s experience at a local (although still respectable!) non-redbrick university, questions were provided and only extracts from texts were framed for study (Young, 2008). Since operationalisations of habitus are difficult, Lee took a multimodal approach to analysing clefts in habitus. Through interviews he identified a very real fear in successful lower-SES students of appearing a ‘snob’ in their home environments, and how lower-SES families are capable of expressing vociferous opinions that defy academic conceptualisation or logic (Lee, 2013). It seems the journey towards powerful knowledge is a lonely one for lower-SES learners. Similarly, Lehmann used a four-year longitudinal study to track how working-class students were, perturbingly, not always able to translate academic achievement into occupational success (Lehmann, 2013). Interestingly, though, Lehmann suggested that some lower-SES learners saw their working-class values (such as hard-work and humility) as virtues that underpinned their habitus and recently-acquired cultural capital. While these are not necessarily solely working-class values, this conceptualisation seemed to alleviate the psychic stress of cleft habitus. Perhaps only an awareness of the arbitrary nature of cultural capital can challenge the discomfort suffered by lower-SES learners who overtly focus on changing their habitus. Such a focus risks trapping learners into obsessing how actors in a field struggle over resources. In doing so they do not necessarily challenge the rules of distribution, and only seek to change individual positions (Gartman, 2017).


While the stress of cleft habitus is recognised, an arguably more significant issue that undercuts teacher and student efficacy is whether graduates achieve graduate jobs that use powerful knowledge. Is achieving a qualification, when qualifications no longer actually qualify someone to do something, a sound goal for education policy? (Young, 2008). McClelland examined longitudinal data to reveal that not only are there not enough jobs for educated individuals, but that lower-SES learners are worse equipped to deal with the periods of challenge when competing for those jobs (McClelland, 1990). This is not just in terms of transitions of habitus, but also economically in the need of unpaid internships or living in expensive cities where more educated work is available. As Ayton argues in Radical Possibilities, without corresponding employment opportunities in cities and changes in public sector employment, socially-aware lower-SES learners will have little economic incentive to be successful in schools (Ayton, 2005: cited in Moore 2006). In fact, given increased globalisation and outsourcing of knowledge-based jobs, it is not clear where all the proficient students will work (Sadonvik, 2000: cited in Moore 2006). UK universities release somewhat disingenuous data on this matter to suggest that graduate unemployment is 10% (HESA, 2016), whereas employment data provided by the ONS suggests that only half of students achieve graduate-level jobs (ONS, 2016).


It is the duty of all teachers to guide students to at least an awareness of vertical knowledge structures because they are ‘the sole pathway to ‘truth’’ (Bernstein, 1999). Yet frank and open conversation with lower-SES learners of the economic realities of graduate employment is necessary. Powerful knowledge may allow different ways of thinking, but many will have no way of using that in their job. Instead, if powerful knowledge is prized and taught in a wider curriculum, as Young calls for, then perhaps this would unsettle the perceptions of whether cultural capital truly demonstrates innate worth and power. And, as the desire for truth is increasingly undermined in common public discourse in the West, framing the acquisition of powerful knowledge for all learners as the duty to seek Bernstein’s ‘truth’ might alleviate the pernicious issues raised above and enrich society for all.





























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