As I read Prof. Susan Blum’s new book, I Love Learning; I Hate School, I sprained my neck from nodding in vigorous agreement. The book casts an anthropological lens on education in general and higher education in particular, and the result is a catalog of many of the things that I believe ails us when it comes to teaching and learning.
The title comes from Prof. Blum’s students. I’m betting that you would hear similar sentiments. I’ve been exploring why I think this is a problem in this space, and Prof. Blum’s book adds invaluable insight into what’s happening in our classrooms. I’m pleased to host her for a Q&A.
Also, Prof. Blum is open to answering questions and responding in the comments. If you have questions or critiques, let’s do it down below.
Susan D. Blum is a professor of anthropology at the University of Notre Dame. She has also taught at the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Colorado Denver, the University of Denver, and Oklahoma State University. Author of four books, including the related My Word! Plagiarism and College Culture (Cornell 2009) and editor of four books, she is a cultural, linguistic, and psychological anthropologist specializing in China, the United States, and comparative cross-cultural work on humankind.
John Warner: In the book, you remark that one of the barriers to you connecting with where students were coming from is that you were a good student, a front-of-the-room kid who loved the “school” parts of school. What do you remember as the earliest signs of the disconnect between how you viewed what was happening in college and how your students viewed what was happening in college?
Prof. Susan Blum: There have always been signs, but there were always enough students like me (I call us the Hermione Grangers) so that I could be confident that I was succeeding in teaching at least some people. The ones who weren’t convinced about the value of the whole enterprise...well, that was their fault. I always tried really hard to reach them, but I also judged them. The very structure of school that pits students in some sense against faculty, rather than regarding us as aligned in our interests the way a doctor and patient would be, means that professors are always trying to anticipate student resistance. How can we get them to read? How can we test to see if they have done the work? How can we make sure they attend? How can we make them do more than the minimum? How can we make sure they aren’t cheating? How--this was the one that I really fixated on--can we make them care? I always assumed that with the right specifics, we could get it right. Sometimes things went very well, of course. But sometimes things went disappointingly. And over time I became puzzled about how great my students were outside class, yet how unengaged some of them seemed in class. They ran huge organizations, taught children, and were trustworthy in the world. Some were world-class athletes and musicians. Why did they seek to do as little as possible for classes? (I generalize here; some students seek fulfilment in the academic part of their lives.) How could I get them to stop asking “Do I have to do X? What do you want on Y? What do I have to do to get an A?” But now I have a good sense of the answers to the questions I’d posed about the nature of college.
JW: It sounds like the journey to writing this book then took a while, years even. How did your thinking progress over time? Are we talking a sudden epiphany or a gradual dawning?
SB: It was definitely a very long journey. Part one was in my earlier book, My Word! Plagiarism and College Culture (2009), but that took me only partway. Once I understood something about the many ways students think about schooling, I kept moving on this road, not knowing where I was going.
Some of my inquiry was fueled by experience and some by academic inquiry, which over time converted into an emotional transformation. I think the epiphany was that I could study the structure of education and childhood from an anthropological perspective, rather than taking it all personally as the result of individual choices. Then there was slow and steady transformation as I came to see that all my assumptions about the naturalness and benefits of conventional schooling were mistaken. Most people don’t learn as well in school as they do outside school. People like me, who love school, are the exceptions.
JW: And you decided to test your theories by gathering data and impressions from students.
SB: I did various types of research, including hundreds of peer interviews (undergraduates interviewing undergraduates, under my guidance) and surveys. I read a huge amount, especially about learning theory and the anthropology of education, writers such as Jean Lave and Barbara Rogoff, Shirley Brice Heath, and George and Louise Spindler. I also found my way to the education radicals such as John Holt, John Taylor Gatto, AS Neill, William Ayers, Alfie Kohn--and back to John Dewey. I read about childhood and the ways children in other places, and in social classes outside the white middle class, take on genuine responsibility, as I learned from colleagues such as Suzanne Gaskins and David Lancy. (Views of education intersect with views of childhood and adulthood, mutually shaping each other.) Then the way schools create a long and growing period of learned irresponsibility--nothing is real until far in the future; it is all a big Game of School and meaning is all deferred until someday, perhaps decades later, what I call the Happiness Deferral Chain--began to look very strange. And I kept recording and reflecting on my own experience--as professor, parent, and learner. And then I broadened my perspective even further and looked at the nature of humans. The inquiry is fully, completely, anthropological, which means nothing can be understood quite in isolation; we even have to look at the evolutionary aspects of our nature(s). Humans, like all mammals, are driven by curiosity, at least in part. There is learning everywhere, but not necessarily teaching, and certainly not school.
JW: And the conclusion is pretty much in the title, students aren’t adverse to learning, but they don’t really see school as a place that values learning. Where have we gone wrong?
SB: There is no single answer because there is no single problem; that’s why there are no simple answers, despite various people’s claims to have discovered the secret key (clickers! learning outcomes! MOOCs! Distribution requirements! No distribution requirements!). I will quote Ruth Paradise, from a fabulous article called “What’s Different about Learning in Schools as Compared to Family and Community Settings,” where she says “The drive to learn in humans is something so strong, so defining of human nature according to anthropologists, that it should still amaze us as truly remarkable that we have been able to design a social institution that can teach children to fail at learning.” So we have gone wrong in making academic school the central part of childhood for all children everywhere, in stuffing them full of disconnected knowledge and skills that they don’t seek (Paolo Freire’s “banking” model); in failing to appreciate how incredibly competent even the very young can be. (Around the world, and in many non-middle-class families, kids have real responsibilities.) Rather than building on children’s, young adults’, energy and passion, we disregard them and force students to try to please an adult evaluator. In interviews and surveys, and in the course of ordinary interaction, many students talked about how much they loved working, or their various extracurricular, activities. These things have real consequences, and the students rise to the occasion when people depend on them. But in school, much of the time, the only reason to learn A is because students will need it for B, which is a requirement for C, which will get them a credit, a grade, a diploma, maybe a decent job. All that is real in our current world, of course, but by the time we get to the end, much of A is forgotten, or was never genuinely learned, and along the way a lot of undesirable things may have happened. Students may have felt despair--the rates of serious mental illness among our young are terrifyingly high--or have found shortcuts that will get them the result without any actual learning taking place. This is a tragic waste of economic and human treasure.
JW: As you know, I explore these issues often in this space and I think many readers are, understandably resistant to the notion that it’s schools that are defective, rather than the students. How do we know that we aren’t just looking at an “entitled” and “spoiled” generation than only wants to diddle on their smart phones, rather than recognizing the pearls we’re casting before them?
SB: As a humanistic social scientist, I have to preach the gospel of structure. Individual desires don’t arise in a vacuum; our “entitled” students have been taught, through everything around them since early childhood, that success is what they are there for. (Yes, they also have agency, the ability to make decisions and the responsibility to be held accountable for their actions.) Students told my interviewers, when asked why they are in college, that they were there “to get good grades” (sometimes they said “to get all A’s”) and to graduate, to make friends. Finding a passionate desire would be excellent; having a major they loved would be terrific. But there are real economic concerns in our neoliberal economy, where students believe they have to compete all the time in order to be successful. Of course, success after school, just like success in school and admission to college, correlate pretty well with social class and race. More schooling for everyone is not going to cure inequality in general, though it can help an occasional individual. Just because good jobs require schooling doesn’t mean that schooling will make all jobs good.
In my own context with highly successful students at the top of the academic mountain, students want something meaningful and engaging. Smart phones--as you said in a recent column that you’ve learned from your students--can be a portal out into the world, filled with fascination. The brilliant multimodal play on SnapChat, to be appreciated by many important people in students’ lives, compels them more than a multiple-choice quiz over vocabulary in some required class. Have you ever seen students teach themselves to make movies, or design websites, or create a budget for their club? I think it is on us, the ones who control the structures, to figure out how to channel all the natural abilities of our young and work with them, not in opposition.
JW: If you could rub a magic lamp and have a genie grant you three wishes about changing the nature or structure of education, what would they be?
SB: It’s magic, right? So I don’t get the dozens of immediate practical objections to my wishes that I can anticipate? Great!
My first wish is that education would take place in the context of the actual world in which it will be used, rather than isolated from any need or application. Not deferred until someday, and not a game of school. Not even age-graded; this narrow age-grading of industrial schools impoverishes the amount of peer learning that is enabled in most societies where children learn from “near-peers.” Of course at community colleges and some universities this is less the case.
The second is that students would not enter universities and colleges straight from high school. (High schools are really problematic too, but this is Inside Higher Ed…) The conflation of growing up and academic learning makes both more problematic. It would make sense to have students set off and learn to be on their own, and then if they needed it, or wanted it, they could enroll in an academic institution. Many would find other ways of learning what they want or need, perhaps in training programs.
The third is that there would be no grades. In that way, the measure of success would have to come from elsewhere--from application, satisfaction, from how well the learning actually works. As another of my touchstones, Frank Smith, says in his wonderful The Book of Learning and Forgetting, most learning--aside from in school--is continuous, effortless, independent of rewards and punishments, and never forgotten. It is only in schools that learning becomes so difficult, dependent on rewards and punishments, and easily forgotten.
The changes can’t be done one at a time, because they are interconnected, and it would take real political and social will to challenge the dominant model of schooling that we have all naturalized. But there are so many experiments being done in so many different domains, that it seems clear we are ripe for a genuine revolution in learning. In that sense, perhaps students can celebrate their love of learning, which is, after all, part of the human endowment.
Remember, Prof. Blum will be responding in the comments. Ask her anything!