Mathematics may well be simple, but the complexities of race and culture are often irreducible. They cannot be wholly addressed in a single essay or book or television show or movie.

Roxane Gay, Bad Feminist

The Department of Education Reform (DER) at the University of Arkansas (and funded by the Walton family) is apparently no longer content with pretending to be educators and researchers. Just in time for Halloween, they are pretending to be sociologists*—and continuing to do all of this quite badly, except for the masking.

First, shame on the journal of Sociology of Education, and next, shame on the DER for continuing to hide culturally insensitive claims behind the veneer of conducting “a large-scale experimental study” and publishing in “the highest ranking educational research journal.”

Continuing their tradition of perpetuating racism/classism and stereotypes while claiming to address the needs of minority children (supporting “no excuses” ideologies and charter chains such as KIPP), the DER now claims:

“We found that, when students are primed through some initial exposure to a cultural institution, this interacts with indicators of students’ disadvantaged status that are associated with low cultural capital and produces higher gains in attitudes toward future cultural consumption,” Kisida said. “Cultural mobility is likely driven, in part, by disadvantaged children becoming activated to acquire cultural capital, thus compensating for family background characteristics and changing their preferences.”

The problem? Here, as I have outlined about how we use deficit perspectives to marginalize impoverished children and blame their parents, this study focuses on “cultural capital” in a way that is bankrupt in terms of cultural sensitivity because the claims include that impoverished children, once again, lack something valued in society and that their parents, once again, are to blame (thus, fix the children mis-served by their inadequate parents, but nothing about the social forces placing both those parents and their children in poverty).

Behind the masks of experimental research and publishing in selective research journals, we find deficit views, stereotypes, and enough shades of the Great White Hope narrative to fuel yet another horrible Hollywood film on the renegade teacher brave enough to take poor or minority children on a field trip to the local museum.

Deficit perspectives and reducing children to “cultural capital” are tone deaf, bankrupt insensitivities that discredit whatever research claims to measure when conducting “a large-scale experimental study” and publishing in “the highest ranking educational research journal.”

Once again, the DER has offered us not objective research but more evidence of Thomas Jefferson’s warning about bias (and privilege, ironically): “The moment a person forms a theory, his imagination sees, in every object, only the traits which favor that theory.”

This study of “cultural capital” is just that—a privileged quantifying of how the world is and should be (“primed” and “activated” children for “future cultural consumption,” for example), a version ultimately deforming, not informing.

This Halloween, then, beware the roadbuilders coming to a school near you.

See Also

The Strangest Academic Department in the World, Gene Glass

It’s Privilege (and Race), not Effort

* This year’s costume: Pierre Bourdieu!

Although one might imagine Bourdieu’s concern about this research:

I’m thinking of what has been called the “return of individualism,” a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy which tends to destroy the philosophical foundations of the welfare state and in particular the notion of collective responsibility….The return to the individual is also what makes it possible to “blame the victim,” who is entirely responsible for his or her own misfortune, and to preach the gospel of self-help, all of this being justified by the endlessly repeated need to reduce costs for companies….

In the United States, the state is splitting into two, with on the one hand a state which provides social guarantees, but only for the privileged, who are sufficiently well-off to provide themselves with insurance, with guarantees, and a repressive, policing state, for the populace. (Acts of Resistance, pp. 7, 32)