Amy Chua’s endlessly discussed Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother and Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s Academically Adrift have provoked much questioning: What’s wrong with parents? What’s wrong with students?
What has not really been asked is, What’s wrong with school?
As an anthropologist studying education, I have learned that formal schooling is a fairly unusual way to accomplish something that all societies have to do: prepare the young for their lives. It is true that a kind of formal schooling existed among elites in ancient Greece and Rome, or for the few extraordinary boys in imperial China, and persists for religious Jews or Muslims. Teachers assemble students of a certain age or level of knowledge, with a curriculum linked to specific needs, such as preparation for civil service positions, participation in democratic processes, or religious practice.
Aside from these experiments, most young humans learn what they need to by watching, attempting, carrying out small tasks, or sometimes undergoing an apprenticeship. This kind of learning is well suited to the natural ways humans learn. According to Howard Gardner in The Unschooled Mind and Daniel Willingham in Why Don’t Children Like School?, powerful evolutionary and neurological forces favor imitation and physicality, which we find in traditional forms of learning—or when children learn to play the guitar from their friends and learn to cook from watching their elders.
We fight against them, though, in the two-decade-long school-centered life that we impose on virtually all of our young, and increasingly around the world. Contemporary schooling emphasizes the abstract over the concrete, the mental over the physical, the theoretical over the practical. Students rarely use any of their knowledge. It is for “someday in the future”—or, failing that, for the test.
I have come to believe, though, that even those who are the victors in the testing game—such as “tiger mother” Chua—lose something. They lose the joy of absorption in a task, the satisfaction of learning something they love or need or want. Meaning and motivation are replaced by something imposed from outside: approval, grades, credentials, diplomas.
It is easy to see the limits of humanity coming up against the inhumane edifice of monolithic schooling. We see it in young children medicated so that they can sit still for hours at a time, or in college students skating through their required, and often resented, courses while they immerse themselves willingly in extracurricular activities.
Tinkering around the edges will make no difference. Many recent changes, such as No Child Left Behind or the increasing competitive admissions of the most select colleges, have brought us to the brink.
Increasingly, people are fed up. Parents are homeschooling or even “unschooling” their children—removing them entirely from the realm of schooling. More high school and college students are taking “gap years,” desperate for relief from the relentless grind of schedules and competition and external judgment. Anya Kamenetz in DIY U argues that many don’t even need college for economic survival and success. Economists wonder if higher education contributes anything at all to students’ lives. Students continue to drop out, or fail to complete degrees.
Having spent my entire life in school, as student and professor, and now as a parent, I have watched some children and young adults thrive and many struggle. I used to think the good ones succeeded and the ones who failed “deserved” it. Now I worry about those who succeed in a system that rewards docility, pleasing others, always doing things in the hopes of getting a gold star. The rebels have a stronger spirit, I think. In my own teaching I am more compassionate about the ones who resist and more skeptical about the ones who go along.
I still love learning, reading, writing, arguing. I work hard to connect my students’ lives to material I have spent my own life investigating, and sometimes individuals catch fire. There is nothing more remarkable than the transformation that happens when somebody begins to see the world in a new way. But I no longer think that schooling has a monopoly on this, and I am encouraged by all the ways our young find to manage their own energies, curiosity, and passion, often outside the walls of our institutions or our classrooms. I am awed by the fervor with which students devote themselves to justice or art, devoting hours and days to things they really care about.
But it should also give us pause, as we think about schooling as the sole path for all. It is no wonder that students are “academically adrift”; the academic path has not compelled them, so they wander off in search of more genuine learning, not just exercises that are imposed from above.
If we open the gates, how many roads will be available?
Susan Blum is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Notre Dame, having taught in every time zone in the US, and having been in school all her life. She turned her anthropological eye from the study of China (ethnicity, nationalism, truth and deception) to the study of student authorship in the context of college in her book My Word! Plagiarism and College Culture (2009), but now is obsessed with the study of education and its underpinnings. Her current project is titled Learning versus Schooling: A Professor's Re-education.
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