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Cultural Capital: Empowerment

Cultural Capital: Empowerment

What is the status quo and why challenge it?

Well, that’s a big question. The status quo basically refers to things as they are and challenging it would mean making things better. But this reveals all sorts of other questions: better by whose standards? Better from which perspective? Better now, or in the long run?

What is empowering for some can be disempowering for others. We don’t all feel empowered by the same things.

When I was in school, we were made to stand in a single file outside the classroom and stretch our arms to touch the shoulders of the person in front of us to make sure were all more or less the same distance away from each other. This was in the hot tropical sun, with heavy school bags on our backs.

I remember one year having a prefect who thought it would be great if we varied the activity by raising and dropping our hands, I can still hear the echo of her voice “angkat, turun, angkat, turun” up and down for a solid fifteen minutes before class started. It didn’t bother me to do this. In fact, I didn’t mind it all, despite this being an utterly ridiculous way to start a school day. That said, I would severely challenge any school that did this to my own children. But my children live in a slightly freer world to mine then, and while they have other imbalances and injustices that they’ll one day have to awaken their minds to, physical drills first thing in the morning isn’t one of them.

If I were to go back to my seven-year old self, I’d say the following:

-“you really don’t have to sweat out these physical drills before your school day has even started”

-“you’ll concentrate less in class if you arrive tired”

-“the weight of that school bag is bad for your back”

-“maybe you could try to negotiate putting the bag down while you do the drill”…and other such helpful advice.

But my younger self would probably stare blankly at me and wait for my speech to finish so she could go back to being the good student she wanted to be, and ‘good’ in that school was defined as much by these rules of physical discipline as academic performance.

It’s easy for an outsider to the context, i.e. my thirtysomething self to tell someone embedded in the situation that there is an injustice. The injustice here is a small child doing physical drills in the hot sun, drills that had no athletic benefit, and done with a heavy school bag on her back. But for the person embedded in the situation, i.e. my seven-year-old self, the rules remain so unquestioned that the injustice is completely invisible, and just a noise from the outside.

Empowerment is not an external process. It does not come from just being given information regarding an injustice, and that information being rationalised into action for change.

Empowerment can only happen through an internalised understanding of the size, shape and situation of a problem, and this isn’t the result of a one-way input session, it is the fruit of dialogue, after an understanding of needs, based on an ethnographic acceptance of history, context and value systems.

Empowerment is not something that happens quickly, empowerment is not something that connectedness instantly brings. It takes quite a lot of work inside to find and express.

Learning to question assumptions is one of the most profound lessons that critical discourse beings. And this is the learning curve that cuts through the apathy, disengagement and boredom of not knowing any better.

Within every school system, there is a curriculum and there is a hidden curriculum. The hidden curriculum is composed of the lessons that are not taught in schools but are learnt anyway. The hidden curriculum is where a lot of the subtle disempowerment takes place. I think one of the most prominent ‘subjects’ in the hidden curriculum is attitude towards gender, which was the last post on this blog. When teachers or parents make careless comments about boy subjects or girl subjects, boy sports or girl sports, albeit with perfectly innocent agendas, the cumulative effect of such attitudes, we all know, could seriously impact a girl’s perceptions of the opportunities that are available to her in life. Hidden as it may be, this space is as real as the physical curriculum, and shouldn’t be left unsupervised and shaped by accident.

And so how do we empower? I suppose we don’t. All we can do is systematically strip away the illusions, the confusions and the lack of education and work towards a better sense of knowing.

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