Cultural Capital, Practical Intelligence and Success

Last Updated on December 25, 2018 by Karl Thompson

Being an analytical genius is not necessarily enough to achieve success in life – it also helps if your parents have sufficient cultural capital to provide you with ‘practical intelligence’. 

In this post, I continue my summary of Malcom Gladwell’s most excellent ‘Outliers: The Story of Success’ (chapter 5: the trouble with geniuses part 2).

Chris Langan started talking at 6 months, and taught himself to read at the age of 3. He was born with high levels of analytic intelligence, and and as a child he always wanted to be an academic, but he never managed to make it.

Langan came from an incredibly disadvantaged background and him and his four brothers endured severe material deprivation. Despite this, Langan won a scholarship to Oregon University at 18, but had the scholarship removed when his mother didn’t complete the appropriate forms for its continuation: he dropped out and returned to Montana to do manual work.  He later enrolled in Montana State University but again had to drop out due to poverty related issues (his car broke down so he couldn’t get to class).

Gladwell contrasts Langan’s  life course to that of the nuclear physicist Robert Oppenheimer:

Oppenheimer managed to complete his PhD in physics despite attempting to poison his tutor half way through because they didn’t get on: he talked the board into sending him to a psychiatrist rather than to jail); years later Oppenheimer managed to talk his way onto the Manhattan Project  – despite not being the best qualified person for the job.

The difference between Langan and Oppenheimer is their respective amounts of  ‘Practical Intelligence’  which Robert Sternberg says includes ‘knowing what to say to whom, knowing when to say it, and knowing how to say it to maximum effect’.

Where does Practical Intelligence Come From?

Perhaps the best explanation comes from sociologists Annette Lareau who conducted a study of third graders.

Laureau selected a sample of both black and white children, from both rich and poor backgrounds, zeroing in on 12 families and the research team visited each family at least twenty times, for hours at a stretch, following them as they went about their daily routines.

Lareau found that there were only two parenting philosophies, and they divided almost perfectly along class lines: the wealthier parents raised their kids one way, the poorer kids were raised another way.

The wealthier parents were heavily involved in their children’s free time: shuttling them from one activity to the next and quizzing them about their teachers.

This kind of intensive scheduling was almost entirely absent from the lives of the poor children. Play for them involved making up games with their siblings.

The middle class parents talked things through with their children, reasoning with them. They didn’t just issue commands, they expected their children to talk back to them, to question adults in authority.

One child Lareau followed just missed qualifying for a gifted programme, so the mother had her re-tested privately, petitioned the school and got her a place on the programme, whereas poor parents are much more reluctant to take on authority.

Lareau calls the middle-class parenting style ‘concerted cultivation’ – an active attempt to foster and assess child’s talents, opinions and skills, whereas working class parents engage in a strategy of ‘accomplishment of natural growth’ – they see it as their responsibility to care for their kids, but to let them grow and develop on their own.

Lareau states that these two parenting styles are morally equivalent, and in fact the working class kids are often better behaved, less whiney and more independent and creative, but concerted cultivation has enormous practical advantages – it helps them deal with authority, to speak up and gives them a sense of entitlement.

Although ‘entitlement’ has negative connotations – Lareau means it in the best terms – middle class kids know the rules and they know how to pursue their self-interest within institutions – they have ‘practical intelligence’, they have the attitudes they need to succeed in the modern world…..


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