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Growing Our Cultural Capital

By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
April 23, 2018

"As everyone knows, priceless things have their price." — Pierre Bourdieu, The Forms of Capital

Dr. Roodal Moonilal is a sophisticated intellectual who spent six years at the Institute of Social Studies at the Hague, in Holland, where he received a doctorate in history. In fact, he announced with justified pride: "I became the first student in the history of the Institute to graduate with a distinction in a PhD for my thesis (sic)" (Newsday, June 27, 2010). One would have thought that he was acquainted with Pierre Bourdieu's thinking on the importance of cultural capital and its immense value to a society.

Dr. Moonilal fulminates against the government's refurbishment of Stollmeyer's Castle. He thunders: "I think it is now obscene that this government has found $16 million to complete Stollmeyer's Castle where we will have a photographic exhibition but cannot complete a school in the constituencies in rural Trinidad. To us, and to me in particular, that is obscene. It is contemptuous and it speaks to some Napoleonic, imperial pursuit of looking at paintings rather than providing education and medical care."

This is a fallacious analogy. The refurbishing of a landmark building and the construction of a school—Hindu or otherwise—should not be framed in terms of "either or." Rather, it should be seen as being done "together with." Each of these worthy pursuits has its place in the development of our society. One need not be done at the expense of the other. There will always be competing claims on government's revenues.

While I was in Rome the Italian government was restoring the Coliseum, which welcomes over 4 million tourists a year and brings 35 million (approximately $TT 350 million) a year to Italian coffers. Schools in Rome do not complain about the cost of restoring the Coliseum. The fight is between the city of Rome and the Italian government as to who gets the lion's share of the money.

It is unwise to reduce the refurbishment and future use of Stollmeyer's Castle to a place where there will be photographic and arttistic exhibitions. Dr. Moonilal tries to recuperate this absurdity by arguing that "his issue" is not about finishing these projects but about the taking away of resources from "water, health and education."

These are not antagonistic claims. One presumes the government allocates certain sums of money for education, health and water distribution. Each has its own value and contributes to the building of a balanced society. These historical buildings are important because they possess cultural significance and have the possibility to increase our financial and cultural capital.

A society's development does not depend only on its financial capital, the central trope around which Dr. Moonilal hangs his argument. The overall strength of society revolves around developing its social, financial and cultural capital, taking cultural capital to mean the social assets that promote a person's social mobility in a stratified society.

Bourdieu argues that capital takes different forms. He says it is impossible "to account for the structure and functioning of the social world unless one reintroduces capital in all its forms and not solely in the one form recognized by economic theory" ("The Forms of Capital"). He says our emphasis on financial capital (self-interested) prevents us from seeing the importance of cultural capital (disinterested) which is just as important to our development.

But Bourdieu does not stop there. He argues that cultural capital may be convertible, "on certain conditions, into economic capital and may be institutionalized in the forms of educational qualifications." Social capital, embodied in certain social obligations, may also be converted into economic capital.

This is why it is misleading to reduce education to buildings where the formal tutelage of students takes place. That is only one aspect of one's educational development. In fact, one might argue that the encroaching barbarism that we see in our society can be ascribed to the declining of intellectual, social and cultural standards around us.

To suggest then, that the government errs because it places some of its hard-earned financial capital into the development of another form of capital—cultural capital—is really to transform what, in any society, is considered a fairly progressive position into a miserly and trashy form of racial pandering. Dr. Moonilal should hold himself up to higher standards.

Dr. Moonilal understands the importance of growing our cultural resources more than many of his colleagues, particularly when one parrots the "diversification of the economy" phrase mindlessly every time one gets a chance. This is why the previous government, in which Dr. Moonilal served so proudly, began to refurbish Stollmeyer's Castle.

Every society has an obligation to mobilize its various forms of capital (financial, social, and cultural) to enhance the well being of its members. It is a tribute to the present and former governments that they recognize the need to do so. Dr. Moonilal's feigned sentiments to the contrary, we ought to congratulate the present government for completing a project, which the previous government started.

This continuity of public projects speaks well to our fledgling democracy. It's an example the government should maintain with the Children's Hospital in Couva.

Next week I will tell the story of Conrad Friedrich Stollmeyer, the patriarch of the family, and his coming to Trinidad.

Professor Cudjoe's email address is scudjoe@wellesley.edu. He can be reached @ProfessorCudjoe.

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