Cultural capital means having an education that has been embellished by intellectual and artistic stimulationANDREW DUNN/COMPOSITE: CHARLEY BARNARD

When I arrived in Cambridge and attended my first few lectures, I would hear academics talking about canonical texts they assumed we’d all read, or at least had an awareness of. Beowulf, Anne Askew, Julian of Norwich: these were all names thrown around my first-year English lecture and supervision rooms which I had to Google later. I felt inferior, head completely still in a sea of nodding faces.

Education goes beyond the UMS marks we get on paper, and instead includes a cultural awareness and educational privilege that many aren’t aware that they have. A lot of students come to Cambridge already in possession of a lot of cultural capital, meaning that they have an education that has been embellished by intellectual and artistic stimulation before they come to university. For example, some students may have been exposed to educational trips to museums or galleries and discussing intellectual topics throughout their adolescence. Then again, a lot of students (myself included) come to Cambridge having never experienced this, and subsequently feel inadequate. I never noticed this inequality before Cambridge, and it seems to me that this is a conversation we should be having.

“I felt inferior, head completely still in a sea of nodding faces”

I registered that I would have to play catch-up long before actually arriving in Cambridge. When I started thinking about applying and attended access talks about the application process, I was suddenly expected to have a lot more than simply knowledge of my A Level curricula. I was expected to have cultural awareness to embellish my personal statement and dazzle in an interview.

With very little time before actually applying to university, I had to get into the habit many people pick up during adolescence: to read and discuss the news over dinner, not watch TV soaps; to read broadly and to read old texts, not just things I could find in my local Waterstones; to find discussion groups and classes to attend, even to visit museums where manuscripts were stored. It felt uncomfortable to try to change the habit of a lifetime, to teach myself to read books that the people around me had never even heard of, let alone read. I had to delve into the depths of the internet to find recommendations. In that sense, the modern generation has its own blessing: What did people like me do before the internet?

Perhaps, despite its flaws, this is where proposed foundation years will help, allowing students to catch up on the intellectual canon before starting at university. But then again, I don’t believe this emphasis on the canon is entirely necessary. With English, for example, while I understand the importance of looking back at pivotal texts and learning the foundations of literature, university courses are so preoccupied with them that we begin to ignore the beauty of texts outside the canon.

“University is a patchwork of everyone’s shared knowledge and experiences, no matter how high-brow, modern or niche”

When writing my personal statement, I made a point of including ‘non-literary’ texts. The Hunger Games, Divergent — books I grew up with and wasn’t ashamed of having read. There is a certain stigma around mainstream, popular novels, especially those written in the 21st century. But what’s wrong with reading current material? Especially if they acted, at least for me, like bookish gateway drugs and led me to more ‘valuable’ reads, like The Handmaid’s Tale or 1984.

I felt an immense pressure to enrich myself with the works of the canon. But how do you know when you’ve finally reached that magical threshold of being ‘well-read’? For me, I tortured myself with Restoration literature and modernist prose, books that were somehow ‘better’ than those of my youth. But I could have gone so much further. I could study all I wanted for my A Levels to get full marks in an exam, but how could I ever get full marks in ‘culture’? Culture simply cannot be exhausted, but the whole prospect exhausted me.


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Since arriving at Cambridge, I’ve felt this pressure double. Sometimes it feels like I’m living half the Cambridge experience, spending my time learning about things everyone already knows about while they’re off learning even more. It can feel like a constant cycle of catching up, but the fact that those around me have an awareness of different types of culture has, in its own way, been enriching.  When others speak about their favourite films or paintings, I become more interested in these things. Similarly, others learn from my awareness of pop culture and more modern forms of literature, like the Twitter poetry phenomenon. University is a patchwork of everyone’s shared knowledge and experiences, no matter how high-brow, modern or niche.

As detrimental as it can sometimes feel, I’m not ashamed of never having encountered Chaucer before coming to uni. And while playing catch-up can feel like a burden, I recognise my own strengths and have the benefit of having more to learn – of not having wasted some of the best life experiences on my childhood.

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