Education and the Autodidact

by Pierre Bourdieu

The relation to culture characteristic of those fractions of the petite bourgeoisie whose position is based on possession of a small cultural capital accumulated at least partly through autodidacticism can only be understood in the context of the effects produced by the mere existence of an educational system offering (very unequally) the possibility of learning by institutionalized stages in accordance with standardized levels and syllabuses. The correspondence between the hierarchy of knowledge and the hierarchy of certificates means, for example, that possession of the highest educational qualifications is assumed, by implication, to guarantee possession of all the knowledge guaranteed by all the lower qualifications. Similarly, two individuals doing the same job and endowed with the same useful competences (i.e., those directly necessary for doing the job), but holding different qualifications, are likely to be separated by a difference in status (and also, of course, in pay), the justification for this being the idea that only the competence certified by the higher qualifications can guarantee possession of the 'basic' knowledge which underlies all practical know-how.

So it presents no paradox to see the autodidact's relation to culture, and the autodidact himself, as products of the educational system, the sole agency empowered to transmit the hierarchical body of aptitudes and knowledge which constitutes legitimate culture, and to consecrate arrival at a given level of initiation, by means of examinations and certificates. Because he has not acquired his culture in the legitimate order established by the educational system, the autodidact constantly betrays, by his very anxiety about the right classification, the arbitrariness of his classifications and therefore of his knowledge--a collection of unstrung pearls, accumulated in the course of an uncharted exploration, unchecked by the institutionalized, standardized stages and obstacles, the curricula and progressions which make scholastic culture a ranked and ranking set of interdependent levels and forms of knowledge. The absences, lacunae and arbitrary classifications of the autodidact's culture only exist in relation to a scholastic culture which has the power to induce misrecognition of its arbitrariness and recognition of a necessity which includes its lacunae. The apparent heterogeneity of his preferences, his confusion of genres and ranks, operetta and opera, popularization and science, the unpredictability of his ignorance and knowledge, with no other connections than the sequence of biographical accidents, all stem from the particularities of a heretical mode of acquisition. For lack of that sense of cultural investment which only needs external signs like the name of the publisher, the director or the venue to pick out a 'top quality' cultural offering, just as it reads the quality of other products from the 'guarantees' implied in certain trade-marks or shops, the petit bourgeois, always liable to know too much or too little, like the heroes of TV quiz games whose misplaced erudition makes them ridiculous in 'cultivated' eyes, is condemned endlessly to amass disparate, often devalued information which is to legitimate knowledge as his stamp collection is to an art collection, a miniature culture.

But above all, the autodidact, a victim by default of the effects of educational entitlement, is ignorant of the right to be ignorant that is conferred by certificates of knowledge, and it would no doubt be futile to seek elsewhere than in the manner in which it is affirmed the difference between the forced eclecticism of this culture, picked up in the course of unguided reading and accidental encounters, and the elective eclecticism of aesthetes who use the mixing of genres and the subversion of hierarchies as an opportunity to manifest their all-powerful aesthetic disposition. One only has to think of the Camus of The Rebel, that breviary of edifying philosophy having no other unity than the egoistic melancholy which befits an intellectual adolescence and infallibly wins a reputation for beauty of soul; or the Malraux of The Voices of Silence, which envelops a cultural patchwork with Spenglerian metaphysical bric-a-brac, imperturbably associating the most contradictory intuitions, hasty borrowings from Schlosser or Worringer, rhetorically exalted platitudes, purely incantatory litanies of proper names and insights which are called brilliant because they are not even false. In fact--but who will say so, since those who could will not, if they even still know it, because so much of themselves is at stake, and those who would have an interest in saying so don't know it?--nothing truly separates that other materialized image of petit-bourgeois culture, Postman Cheval's Ideal Palace--a ramshackle fairyland straight out of the engravings of La Veillee des Chaumieres, with its labyrinths and galleries, grottoes and waterfalls, Inize and Velleda the Druidess, the Saracen tomb and the mediaeval castle, the Virgin Mary's grotto and the Hindu temple, the Swiss chalet, the White House and the Algiers mosque--from the tawdry pathos of Malraux when he marshals in a single sentence the 'innumerable laughter of the waves', and the horsemen of the Parthenon, Rubens's Kermesse and Khmer sculpture, Sung painting and the Dance of Siva, the Romanesque tympanum and 'Antigone's immortal cry', all in the name of communion with the cosmos. Nothing, except the loftiness of the references and, above all, the arrogance, the complacency, the insolence, in a word, the self-assurance, the certainty of having which is grounded in the certainty of having always had, as if by an immemorial gift, and which is the exact opposite of the naivety, innocence, humility, seriousness which betray illegitimacy. 'If there be more stubborn than I, let him set to work'; 'To a valiant heart, nothing is impossible'; 'On the field of toil I await my better': these avowals of pure love of work for work's sake are of course not by Malraux.

Here, no doubt, one touches on the principle of the opposition between all rising classes, the bourgeoisie in an earlier period, now the petite bourgeoisie, and the established classes, the aristocracy or bourgeoisie. On the one hand, thrift, acquisition, accumulation, an appetite for possession inseparable from permanent anxiety about property, especially about women, the object of a tyrannical jealousy which is the effect of insecurity; on the other, not only the ostentation, big spending and generosity which are some of the conditions for the reproduction of social capital, but also the self-assurance which is manifested, in particular, in aristocratic gallantry and elegant liberalism, forbidding the jealousy which treats the loved object as a possession--as if the essential privilege conferred on the possessors of inherited wealth were freedom from the insecurity which haunts self-made men, Harpagon as much as Arnolphe, who are perhaps too aware that 'property is theft' not to fear the theft of their property.

The stockpiling avidity which is the root of every great accumulation of culture is too visible in the perversion of the jazz-freak or cinema-buff who carries to the extreme, i.e., to absurdity, what is implied in the legitimate definition of cultivated contemplation, and replaces consumption of the work with consumption of the circumstantial information (credits, exact composition of the band, recording dates etc.); or in the acquisitive intensity of all collectors of inexhaustible knowledge on socially minuscule subjects. In his symbolic class struggle with the certified holders of cultural competence, the 'pretentious' challenger--nurse against doctor, technician against engineer, promoted executive against business-school graduate--is likely to see his knowledge and techniques devalued as too narrowly subordinated to practical goals, too 'self-interested', too marked, in their style, by the haste of their acquisition, in favour of more 'fundamental' and also more 'gratuitous' knowledge. In a whole host of markets, from the major state examinations to editorial boards, from job interviews to garden parties, the cultural productions of the petit-bourgeois habitus are subtly discredited because they recall their acquisition in matters in which, more than anywhere else, the important thing is to know without ever having learnt, and because the seriousness with which they are offered reveals the ethical dispositions from which they flow, which are the antithesis of the legitimate relation to culture.

The petit bourgeois do not know how to play the game of culture as a game. They take culture too seriously to go in for bluff or imposture or even for the distance and casualness which show true familiarity; too seriously to escape permanent fear of ignorance or blunders, or to sidestep tests by responding with the indifference of those who are not competing or the serene detachment of those who feel entitled to confess or even flaunt their lacunae. Identifying culture with knowledge, they think that the cultivated man is one who possesses an immense fund of knowledge and refuse to believe him when he professes, in one of those impious jests allowed to a Cardinal, who can take liberties with the faith forbidden to the parish priest, that, brought down to its simplest and most sublime expression, it amounts to a relation to culture ('Culture is what remains when you've forgotten everything'). Making culture a matter of life and death, truth and falsehood, they cannot suspect the irresponsible self-assurance, the insolent off-handedness and even the hidden dishonesty presupposed by the merest page of an inspired essay on philosophy, art or literature. Self-made men, they cannot have the familiar relation to culture which authorizes the liberties and audacities of those who are linked to it by birth, that is, by nature and essence.

SOURCE: Bourdieu, Pierre. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, translated by Richard Nice (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984), pp. 328-330.

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