Susan D. Blum


On her book “I Love Learning; I Hate School”: An Anthropology of College

Cover Interview of September 04, 2017

In a nutshell

Students do a lot of non-learning in school. They cheat, cut corners, cram, forget everything as fast as they can, and are often miserable in the process. This is a waste, a crying shame. But they are often excellent at learning outside school, because humans are terrific learners. I have concluded that the more school resembles the ways we learn outside school the more successful and engaging it will be.

I noticed that students were really good at learning what they wanted to learn and were really not invested in a lot of what I asked them to learn. So, I wanted to understand better. For about 15 years I’ve been using anthropological approaches to see how people learn in general and how that contrasts with how they learn in school. I have come to realize that the ways people learn in school don’t match the ways we learn in life in general.

I argue that if we are going to keep everyone going to school and if we really want them to learn, we need to change the motivation structure, the assessments, the activities, the goals. It can’t be that we lecture to passive students who regurgitate the information in a test and promptly forget it. This is not learning. It is a simulacrum of learning. To be learned, material has to be used.

This critique of school has roots in John Dewey, and progressive education, in the sense that we should be preparing students to engage in learning for life, but also in ideas of Paolo Freire and his notion of education for empowerment. The critique of industrial education, training docile workers for factory jobs, is old. But schools for the most part haven’t changed. And the lecture system from medieval times when book ownership was limited so the lecturer spoke the contents of the book he—it was always a he—possessed is still the paradigmatic model of school. We obviously don’t need that any more.

What do we need? There are lots of experiments in every corner of the education world, from flipped classrooms to problem-based learning to badges to internships to clickers to theses. Sometimes faculty are afraid to use them, though, because they’ll get dinged on evaluations.

Good students are doing what they’ve been trained to do. From early childhood, they have been trained to focus on grades, on pleasing teachers, on following instructions, on getting points in what I call the game of school. Achievement is the measure.

But it has all kinds of negative side effects and this must be attended to. Attention must be finally paid, to quote that great philosopher queen, Linda Loman, Willy’s widow in Death of a Salesman, to “such a person”: every single human being who comes our way.