Susan D. Blum


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

Cover Interview of September 04, 2017

The wide angle

The topic of this book is connected to everything! (Okay, maybe not directly to geology or health insurance. But to a gazillion other things that matter.) It’s connected to the nature of humans as social and learning animals with long childhoods; to the political and economic structures that intersect with schooling and credentials; to families and the roles of youth; to ideas of cultural transmission; to the question of wellbeing and how school contributes to or undermines it; to feelings of worth; to the human mind in its fully capable essence; to work, obviously; to joy; to international competition and perceptions of international competition; to democracy.

My book is fully anthropological in the sense that anthropologists have studied learning around the world. Until schools spread in the second half of the twentieth century, learning in life rarely resembled what has become familiar to us: divorced from real life, with age segregation finely sliced, with every foray into learning measured and evaluated, all mistakes punished and averaged together, and the material imposed because it is related in some theoretical way to some uniform sense of what students are likely to need at some point in the future, probably in the next round of schooling.

Since just about everybody now goes to school, if not to higher education, this affects everybody. But not everybody is like me. I have always LOVED school. I thrive when I learn abstractly.

Most people don’t. And that’s okay. There’s not just one way to be a person, and there’s not just one way to learn. My cultural relativistic ideas from my anthropological background did not necessarily lead me to think this, until I had a kind of crisis in my teaching, where I really dreaded going to class. In the end, I changed from blaming the students to blaming the structure—including the structure I imposed in my class.

I had written about plagiarism, building on work I’d done on truth and deception in China and elsewhere. It connects with my training in China studies, and with my focus on linguistic anthropology. But this latest book—the second in a trilogy—really takes on the nature of schooling, which was only one of the components of students’ willingness to resort to cheating and plagiarizing. If the whole goal is the grade, then any means is as good as another. If the goal is learning, then things like writing matter. But students are shaped by the conversations that surround them, and most people talk only about the “bottom line”: GPA, degree, time to completion, statistics about school attendance, etc. The assumption is that all this matters because somewhere in between signing up for a lifetime of debt and finding a job, there is some energy left for learning. But in fact, there isn’t that much.

I find that deplorable, but now completely understandable.

So, I invite my students to join me on an adventure in learning, with lots of choices and options to connect it to something that matters for them. I’ve developed a thoroughly ecological view, following John Muir’s insight that “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” So if a student in a Food and Culture class is interested in something—eating disorders, Instagram photos of food, notions of Ukrainian food, acai and other superfoods—then our themes of identity, gender, power, representation, aesthetics, taste, marketing, and cultural influence will emerge. I am confident that students can lead and then we will find what they need to get to their place.

My understanding of the nature of humans has increased—which is completely part of my training as a cultural, linguistic, and psychological anthropologist, even if the specific questions and domains within which I address them appear completely unrelated to my first academic work. My involvement in a holistic, integrative department of anthropology, where I have conversations with colleagues specializing in biological anthropology, has influenced me profoundly.

I read like a fiend; I’ve pretty much used up my eyesight.

And I have learned most everything from listening to my students and my own daughters.