Saturday, February 26, 2011

Educational credentialism

While grading exams and papers, I have been taking little "breaks" and reading anthropologist Peter Demerath's Producing Success: The Culture of Personal Advancement in an American High School.

The book is based on longitudinal ethnographic research - that is, Demerath conducted fieldwork over four years, engaging in participant-observation and interviews in order to follow a focal group of students from 9th to 12th grade - at Wilton Burham High School, a "good" public high school in the Midwest.

Much of the public discourse on schooling today is focused (rightly, I think) on disadvantages, so that we might talk about the effects of poverty.

As an anthropologist, however, Demerath also argues that advantages ought not be taken simply for granted - that they, too, should be examined carefully as socially created. He describes "the tight - almost seamless - linkages between class ideology, parenting practices, ideal notions of personhood, and accepted school policies and practices" that result in "1) positioning individuals to successfully compete in school and 2) leveraging community resources to support the schools, build up the confidence of individual students, and frame their efforts as successes" (2).

Exhibits A and B: At WBHS, building up the confidence of individual students and framing their efforts as successes can be seen in the school allowing up to 47 students to graduate as valedictorians, and distributing a special cord and "Medal of Excellence" to every graduate to wear with his or her cap and gown (in response to a parents complaining that their graduates might "feel bad" about not being designated members of the National Honor Society).

What especially concerns me as an anthropologist and a college professor who bears witness to this every day in my work is this passage that Demerath quotes from another book that I might place on my kindle wish-list, How to Succeed in School without Really Learning (1997):

David Labaree pointed out several years ago that market pressures and social exertions give rise to educational credentialism, at the heart of which is a tension between a view of education as a private good that facilitates individual advancement, and as a public good that provides society with collectively shared benefits. Furthermore, he showed how under credentialism, "teaching takes a back seat to the more socially salient task of sorting, and grading becomes more important for its social consequences than for its pedagogical uses (1997,2). Labaree concluded that social mobility goals have promoted the commodification of education in the U.S., which threatens to "transform the public educational system into a mechanism for personal advancement" (p.12).

I think Labaree might have been a bit optimistic: Commodification is no threat, it is what already has been happening. Now, I worry that higher ed / academia has sold itself too cheaply as a self-help program. Yet, I also hear how lamely platitudinous it sounds: To claim education as a public good. What does that even mean? I wonder whether or not there is a convincing way to talk about public good that does not on some level speak to the "pecuniary considerations" that sociologists claimed in 1929 (in the classic study of "Middletown") were changing the fabric of American life.

I wish it mattered not only to talk about a public good, but also to talk about the play and excitement that actually accompanies learning - which as a parent is what I wish for my kids to know.

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