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Review of "Doing School"

By Denise Clark Pope
Yale University Press, 2001
Review by George Abaunza on May 28th 2004
Doing School

Though many consider John Dewey as perhaps the most prolific philosopher of education to date, he would be the first to remind us that most of our learning actually occurs outside of formal educational environments—schools. So why would Dewey spend so much time and attention on devising ways of improving formal education? Ironically, his point was not intended to detract from the value of schools but, instead, to shed light on their significance, as these become the places—the last bastions, if you will—where we intentionally provide our young with the tools necessary for their intellectual and emotional development. In other words, Dewey might say, if we can't get it right in our schools, then chances are we're not going to get it right under any other circumstances.

A fundamental question then arises. Are our schools truly effective in fostering genuine and meaningful learning? What better place to look for answers to this question than in our schools? What better way to investigate this same question than by asking those who are directly impacted by education; students? In Doing School, Denise Clark Pope does both—an innovative move on both counts. Pope spends eight months of a school-year shadowing five high school students, during which time she documents their experiences in and out of school. As the author herself points out, most studies concerning education and schools seldom involve the perspectives of those most directly involved; the students. After reading about the lives of these young people, from their own perspectives, you get a sense that this vacuum in research is not only an effect from educational philosophies that compromise the intellectual, emotional, and moral well-being of our young, but at the same time perhaps the cause of these compromises, which are only exacerbated by this very neglect. The pictures these students paint, all of whom are considered "model" students, are disheartening. The subtitle to Pope's book is no coincidence: How We Are Creating a Generation of Stressed Out, Materialistic, and Miseducated Students. Pope's work provides us with a front-row view of the pernicious values of an "ideology of achievement" being played out on the very stages where we should be instructing young people in the art of human fulfillment and happiness.

Again, the subtitle of this book is no coincidence, and provides us with succinct insights to the issues being addressed. So let's take each of these charges one at a time.

All five students report varying levels of stress, from anxiety about grades and achieving the credentials necessary for gaining entrance to the best college possible, to outright physical ailments such as chronic illness and ulcers. The emphasis placed on achievement and success via grades, not only takes its toll on students' emotional and physical wellbeing, but also serves to displace any intrinsically motivated desire to learn and achieve according to principles they deem genuine.

Pope discloses a "national culture" obsessed with material gain. What many people may not realize is the extent to which this culture has come to inform and dominate the values being promoted throughout institutions of formal education, at all levels. We've reached a point where our third graders are devotedly declaring, "I want to be rich and drive a Lexus, so I need to get A's." A hint as to where a child might gain such lofty ideals comes from the very facts that they neither drive nor handle the financial affairs of the household; hence, their knowledge is not experiential. If material gain is a quintessential and defining value of our culture, why should we expect that our schools will find a way to promote dignity, integrity, self-worth, and empathy? After all, where else are our up-and-coming profiteers going to acquire the skills and values to make it in this culture of excess and self-gain at all costs? Pope opens our eyes to the many ways even the "model" students are cheating their way to good grades. Remember, according to this culture, it's only about the end result—the appearance—and not how you got there. One of the most popular game-shows ever, "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" comes to mind. Here is a perfect example of how we handsomely reward cheating and not having to "really" know why an answer is correct. Players are allowed three life-lines (chances to ask someone else for the answer or reduce their chances of a wrong answer to fifty-percent, that is, cheat), which they exhaust not before gaining a significant amount of money, usually tens of thousands of dollars.

This leads us into the third and perhaps, educationally, the broadest and most significant concern. What are young people learning? Are they even "learning" anything at all, or are they simply mimicking an adult set of values? They're learning how to get by in the system—how to "do school"—as opposed to "content knowledge or important concepts and theories." Students become adept at memorization, as opposed to the kind of learning whereby they truly internalize knowledge and skills precisely because they recognize these as relevant and meaningful to their lives. In essence our schools, as microcosms of our general culture, are promoting a skewed understanding of the nature of education and its potential worth. Interestingly enough, one of the five students, Michelle, does exemplify a robust understanding of the process of education and the value of this process for genuine learning. She contradicts the "gains at whatever cost" mentality of the others. Although she is success driven (seeking excellence as an actor and artist), her desire to learn and to help others learn is driven by the desire for learning itself. Of course, her grammar school education took place in a progressive school, where she was taught the love of learning.

To understand what is happening in many of our high schools, we might draw some interesting parallels between the alienation experienced by students and the four forms of alienation outlined by Karl Marx in his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts. According to Marx, workers under the oppressive conditions of capitalism are alienated: 1) from the products they produce (since these and the resources by which they are produced do not belong to them); 2) from the process of production (since they have no say in the process itself); 3) from their species-being (which Marx sees as characterized by a natural creative disposition in human beings, which is thwarted under such conditions whereby we are forced to produce for need and not for creative expression); and 4) from others (which includes both the boss with whom we have opposing interests, and our fellow workers with whom we are forced into competition for higher wages and lower prices).

As these students themselves report, they feel alienated from the very material they are expected to learn, as well as from any intrinsically motivated lessons they might take an interest in—the products of their labors—because what they are taught is imposed upon them and oftentimes is simply irrelevant to their lived experiences. Test scores and grades are perceived, by students themselves, as incidental to the product of their educational labors.

They feel alienated from the process of learning. Their work is forced upon them to fulfill the needs of teachers, curriculum, administrators, and policy makers. This gives way to a feeling of not belonging to oneself, due to the lack of control over subject matter and methods of instruction. At the same time, they are not encouraged to engage the subject matter beyond the exigencies of getting the highest grades or test scores. Students have been so systematically removed from managing the process of learning, that it may come as a surprise to many that these students actually want to feel engaged with and passionate about what they learn. One of the reasons why this may not be so evident is because they are being forced to learn by means of a process that constantly saps them of their self-determination and sense of self-worth. The educational philosopher, Henri Giroux, uses the term "resistance" to describe the persistence of will and the kind of self-knowledge with which students must arm themselves in order to confront such negative forces. According to their own accounts, all five students, along with many of their peers, manifest this type of resistance.

They are alienated from their species-being or creative expression. Students are not fulfilled by the work they do. They experience physical exhaustion, are mentally and morally debased, and generally feel unhappy. The creative process takes a back seat to achieving an end result. This is as true of the knowledge being produced, as it is of their sense of happiness. Students are being convinced that what society expects of them can be achieved by getting high grades, even when this compromises integrity and honesty—grades at any cost. Remember, we only care about how it looks at the end of the day, and not how you achieved it. Meanwhile the goal of financial success is touted as the end-all to happiness, therefore, not only confusing them about the nature of happiness—something often found in the very process of seeking it—but also leaving them ignorant as to the skills necessary to achieve it. Should our schools not instead be, minimally, places where we provide the very tools with which students might realistically attain happiness?

And finally, students report being alienated from others, both with respect to teachers and their fellow students. Although under this "ideology of achievement" students and teachers appear to share goals, this is only because the former are in essence forced to learn what is put before them. The amount of dishonesty and contrivance students summon to "appear" as if they are complying with the goals of their teachers clearly shows that their interests are in opposition. With respect to their peers, students are pitted in intense competitions over grades. Ironically, as Pope points out, teachers are not exempt from the "culture of gain." They, too, are obligated by the same value system that seeks results at whatever cost, whether to their students or to themselves.

As you read about the lives of these students, you hope that along the way Pope will interject and offer some way of making sense of the issues these young people, and we as a society, are facing. Instead, she stays true to form by allowing the students the voice to express the unique insights with which we might try to make sense of where our places of formal learning are headed. In the last chapter the author does a wonderful job of synthesizing the issues, responding critically and offering some hope. The only warning I would issue when reading this book is that the reader keep in mind that all hope is not lost. I have had the privilege of interacting with many of our young people, from first through twelfth grades, and although Pope is correct in suggesting that our problems are embedded institutionally and culturally, believe me, there are wholesome, vibrant, intelligent, caring, and thoughtful young people out there. Each and every one of these ought to provide us with all the reasons we need to ensure that the institutional and cultural change Pope calls for, takes place.


© 2004 George Abaunza


George Abaunza, currently teaching in the Philosophy Department, including the philosophy of education, at Felician College in Lodi, New Jersey, and completing my dissertation (Florida State University) titled, Making Artists of Us All: John Dewey's Educational Aesthetic.

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