Cultural Mobility

Describing our viewpoints on the world, Mary Midgley used the analogy of an aquarium with a number of murky windows through which people could peer. If we think of the aquarium as a whole as ‘reality and truth’ and each window being a perspective through which we can gaze upon that reality, we can begin to piece together an idea as to what the truth might be. No ‘one’ thing gives us the whole truth, rather we gain a range of perspectives, of ways of knowing, and the more we have helps us see more of the ‘overall truth’. This is the root of the idea of the need for cultural mobility. Cultural mobility helps us in our search for meaning, it helps us by sharing meanings with us.

In Aesop’s fable of the hedgehog and the fox, the fox is portrayed as being able to traverse over a lot of subjects, breadth is her game. The hedgehog, however, knows one thing really well and will roll into a tight and very spiky, little ball protecting his perspective. Which would you prefer to be? The specialist or the polymath? The suspicion, might be, that most of us don’t think of ourselves as either, with an education system that tries to help us to specialise, leaving us bereft if we don’t manage to make a success of the specialisation.

One of the ways schools help the formation of the culturally mobile, the polymath, is through the disciplines it offers. Well taught, each discipline enables a pupil to gaze through a number of murky windows into the aquarium. With a focus on truth, on beauty, on rightness through the sciences, the arts, languages, the humanities, and physical and technical studies, a child can find herself knowing more about the truth than gazing through one murky window would enable her so to do.

Each subject helps make meaning for the child. This is the way this subject works, these are the finest thoughts, artefacts, methods and ideals that help us make sense of the world and, in turn, help the pupil to make their way through this world. A culturally mobile child finds himself able to make sense of the physical world, the transcendental, the natural and the thoughtful, interpreting it in a variety of ways. Cultural mobility is an authentic way of seeing education, it is relevant to the now as well as the future and past. Social mobility, on the other hand, shifts learning from the quality of knowing something and placing it somewhere in a measured future – the achievement of a white-collared job.

Cultural mobility frees us from the class concerns of social mobility. It is not about assuming a class identity and is not hung up on whether one has sold out or no longer belongs. Instead of assuming a person can only have one perspective on the world based on one’s social standing, cultural mobility accepts we have more than one way of being in the world. I do not have to reject or be rejected by my home, family, ‘culture’ – rather I realise I can be affected by different environments and ways of being – in my favourite cafe, my favourite football ground, at work, at play, at home and away I am adaptable to the environments in which I find myself. I am different within these environments, but not a different person. As these worlds open up to me so my mind opens up to them, these worlds disclose themselves to me and I traverse within them either openly or closed to them. Education should help me be open to them, and to more ways of understanding the world without inexorably alienating me from my home. Cultural mobility doesn’t make me alien to my origins. Social mobility, on the other hand, might suggest my origins are a problem, rather than my anchoring and my first glimpses of how to be-in-the-world. A socially mobile approach tries to endow me with the cultural capital to put the past behind me.

Glimpses into the aquarium – the more perspectives we can have, the richer our education is. A culturally rich experience doesn’t dispense with our rootedness, it enables us to find roots in many places, to be at home in a number of places. To be somewhere, anywhere.

3 thoughts on “Cultural Mobility

  1. Part of being culturally mobile is developing an ability to detach oneself from the ties that bind and prevent growth. Many of these are far more subtle than class, money or background. Ingrained biases, fear of change, superiority/inferiority complexes or simple intellectual sloth can permanently reinforce cultural stasis, impeding the opening of the mind that is required for actual cultural mobility rather than mere pretence. Overcoming such obstacles requires first and foremost an awareness of them.


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