Revolution Lullabye

March 6, 2008

Bourdieu The State Nobility Chapter 2

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Bourdieu, Pierre. The State Nobility: Elite Schools in the Field of Power. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1989.


Part II: “The Ordination”


Part II is organized in three sections. I will give a summary of each section.


Section 1: The Production of a Nobility

Bourdieu argues that the French preparatory schools – the schools that prepare students to take the concours and enter the grande ecoles – systematically produce an elite, noble class through their specific pedagogical techniques and cultural mores. First, the students in the school are segregated and isolated from the rest of society. This restriction, Bourdieu argues creates a monopoly of power which, “when recognized, is converted into a nobility” (79). This group practices magical shareholding – they claim the symbolic capital of the collective group and of each individual member (79-80). Second, they have a common culture (slang, jokes, manners, and history transmitted through enculturation and hazing) that imparts a sense of social harmony and camaraderie that alumni continue to reference and use (83). Third, the teachers, who dedicate their lives to their students, teach specifically for the concours by primarily lecturing and piling work on their students (84-86; 93-94). Competition, survival, and efficiency are stressed; there is no expectation that the students will later remember or further research what they learn in lectures (86-88). This general knowledge of the things the elite believes are good for people in powerful positions to know is more important than specific technical knowledge, which is taught at the university (99-100; 111). The jobs university graduates will get will require them to have technical knowledge, while the jobs graduates of the grande ecoles will secure will require them to have an elite degree, a piece of symbolic capital.


Section 2: “A Rite of Institution”

Bourdieu claims that an academic degree and title has two important purposes: it tells the world that the person has been “consecrated” to have social power and an elite position and it enables the chosen person to recognize himself as a person of power and dignity (103-104). He calls this the dialectic of consecration and recognition and argues that “the elite school chooses those who have chosen it because it has chosen them” (104). It is no surprise, he states, who is admitted to these schools – they are the children who have succeeded from an early age: reading before they start attending school, skipping grades, etc (106). Bourdieu also discusses the case of the transplant, the student from the working class who vaults into the preparatory school (107). The transplant, when she receives her academic title, must reject her past, in essence becoming a convert (107-108). Bourdieu also claims that the elite schools gain their power to nominate and grant titles from the fact that people in power derive their power and status from their attachment to that institution (109).


“Assigning someone to a group of superior essence (noblemen as opposed to commoners, men as opposed to women, educated as opposed to uneducated, etc.) causes that person to undergo a subjective transformation that contributes to bringing about a real transformation likely to bring him closer to the assigned definition” (112).


Section 3: The Ambiguities of Competence

Here Bourdieu argues that it is the arbitrary breaks that occur in the elite schools (such as the decision between the last person who passes the concours and the first person who fails) that translates into perpetual social stratification. The “magic of the academic title” gives its holders a monopoly on social virtue and competence (118). He points out that the academic degree guarantees lifelong competence even when technical skills lapse (no one can take away your PhD, for example) (118-119). Also, people who hold academic titles are described differently than those who have other, more technical jobs: those whose jobs depend on technical skills are defined as what they do while the elite are described as who they are (119). Bourdieu adds that the person with an academic title is not bound by what skills he may or may not have; he is a “free worker” and not subject to economic and technological shifts in the same way as a lower-class worker is (120). Bourdieu ends by discussing how technical workers increase their social status by introducing semantic changes in their job descriptions (from janitor to custodian), which derives from the concept of academic titles – that the title is more important than the work done.


March 5, 2008

Brandt Literacy in American Lives

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Brandt, Deborah. Literacy in American Lives. New York: Cambridge UP, 2001.

Brandt develops the analytical lens of literacy sponsors to explain how larger economic and social forces impact the development of an individual’s literacy. Her study, conducted in the 1990s, consists of 80 interviews of people, ranging in age from 10 to 85, who live in the southern Wisconsin area. She shows how the rapid expansion of technology and the increased reliance on documents and texts (the contractarian society) has changed Americans’ literacy habits. Brandt shows this change in American society by looking at the literacy sponsors of four generations of an American family (the Mays) and by investigating how specific moments in history corresponded to an individual’s ability to acquire a new literacy (both in reference to the union and labor movement in the 1970s and the prison reform/rehabilitation at the same time.) Another one of Brandt’s chapters deals with the differences in attitudes towards reading and writing. Brandt asserts that writing plays an important role in the new 21st century economy, an economy that is centered around production. She argues that the public schools, who are supposed to be institutions of democracy and equal opportunity, need to be re-evaluated in terms of literacy sponsors to see what literacy learning they are offering their students and what, due to inadequate funds and poor technology resources, are they not giving their students.

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