Doing School: How We Are Creating a Generation of Stressed Out, Materialistic, and Miseducated Students
reviewed by Gad Yair - 2002
Title: Doing School: How We Are Creating a Generation of Stressed Out, Materialistic, and Miseducated Students
Author(s): Denise Clark Pope
Publisher: Yale University Press, New Haven
ISBN: 0300090137, Pages: 240, Year: 2001
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"Excellent", I said to myself, "here is the missing piece I've been looking for. I now have a fuller and more realistic picture of the puzzle of students' lives in classrooms." This was my first reaction upon reading Denise Clark Pope's book, Doing School. I was fortunate to have been asked to review this book, and the timing of its arrival on my desk was perfect: I had just begun teaching a course on American school reform, and Pope's book fit neatly into the introduction section. It nicely complemented Theodore Sizer's classic Horace's Compromise, published two decades ago. In that book, Sizer perceptively described a series of contradictory expectations that his fictive teacher, Horace Smith, faced while teaching in high school. In like manner, Pope has provided us with five real-life portraits of ostensibly successful high school students. The five high school students who Pope shadowed during a year-long study were selected by the school's staff. As one guidance counselor told her, "these students represent some of our best and brightest" (p. 2). In a penetrating style, Pope has echoed Sizer's lead and systematically deciphered the compromises that these kids made on a daily basis. Positioned in a "sociologically ambivalent role" (Merton 1976), these students face contradictory norms and expectations. Their minds constitute a battleground between non-school pressures and temptations and within school demands and requirements. They are in a constant tug-of-war (Yair 2000). To survive this context, they manipulate the school system. They master the school's rules and excel academically. However, Pope shows that to be the best and brightest and outperform their peers, these students overdo their schoolwork and sacrifice their youthful pursuits and inner wishes. They dislike learning, at times cheat, and act "chameleon-like." Yet they also become sick, stressed, and neurotic. Nevertheless, they do prove to be the school's best and brightest.
Kevin, Eve, Teresa, Michelle, and Roberto (each gets a chapter) are very different adolescents. They come from different social backgrounds, have different learning styles, and exhibit very different skills and preoccupations. Their families differ, as do their cultural and social capital. Nevertheless, they all aspire to reach the highest possible socio-economic position and income level. Like many other adolescents their age, they are members of "the ambitious generation" (Schneider and Stevenson 1999). In an honest statement, Kevin openly acknowledges: "... grades are the focus. I tell you, people don't go to school to learn. They go to get good grades which brings them to college, which brings them the high-paying jobs, which brings them happiness, so they think" (p. 11). Chapter by chapter, Pope consistently shows how her five students embrace the American dream of success. She also acutely describes how these kids sacrifice their childhood to achieve their dream. They all seem like little adults: Serious, hard-working, focused, rational, calculating. While they know that life can have a pleasant side to it, especially during adolescence, they also know that their peers are equally competitive. As a result, they ‘do school’ seriously. Compete and get good grades, that is what it's all about. Though they at times penetrate the ideology that they – and their encouraging/pushing parents – steadfastly cling to, they rarely pause to resist the school's creed and pressures. Instead, these kids do school; they go through the motions, pretend to be engaged, and manipulate the loosened school organization. They satisfice.
During the 1970s and 1980s, sociologists analyzed schools as "loosely coupled organizations" (Ingersoll 1993; Weick 1976). Scholars have shown that while schools adopt symbolic means and rituals (e.g., exams and grades) to gain legitimacy from their environment (Meyer and Rowan 1977), they do so halfheartedly. They argued that the actual life of teachers and students in classrooms is rather disconnected from societal requirements. To the extent that this depiction was correct at that time, Pope suggests that the 1990s prove that it is no longer so. The elite school and the best and brightest kids that she studied are tightly coupled to their extant environment and aspired-to future. From the book we learn that "Faircrest High" accepts capitalism's competitive ethos, and uses different means to convey the competitive ethos to its students. It places excellent students and their achievements on public pedestals, and strategically limits the number of students who can be the best and brightest. Thus, the school can be likened to a small firm. Though it (still) lacks the capacity to pay students by results, it does remunerate them covertly with non-monetary means. For the elite, then, schools are tightly coupled to adults' economic environments.
However, as Pope suggests, doing school for future's sake may be ‘non-educational’, and students may grow up “miseducated.” The values and rationales that motivate students at Faircrest High are extrinsic and non-educational. However, if learning was the basic value and schooling regarded as its own aim – the school would be different, as would the students' experiences. Pope addressed this issue in the seventh chapter – largely capitalizing on knowledge gained through the literature – but left me ambivalent about the sociological ambivalence of Faircrest High and the five students I followed throughout the book.
This final chapter, “The Predicament of Doing School,” has proved to be the least aspiring in the book. After a short introduction and five descriptive chapters, I expected this one to challenge existing theories of student engagement and open new theoretical questions about the experience of schooling. It seems, though, that Pope chose to sidestep this important endeavor and selectively engaged extant literature in an attempt to tie in Horace’s compromises with those exhibited by her five students. In a sense, it was no more than an echo.
Nevertheless, Denise Clark Pope has written an important book. Personally, it served to fill in a missing descriptive piece in my puzzle of schooling and students' experiences. However, after completing the 185 pages of the text, and having read the extra 20 pages of notes, I was still left ambivalent. Take the book's subtitle, for example, which reads "How We Are Creating A Generation of Stressed Out, Materialistic, and Miseducated Students." Yet the book reports the experiences of only five exceptional students in one exceptional high school. The talk of "a generation" is overshooting the data. Furthermore, Pope's style adopts positivistic, quantitative language even though her study exemplifies a neat qualitative case study. For example, she writes that "many of the students had...", or that "most of the students..." (p.158). But, again, there were only five students. To talk about them as "all" or "most" is simply meaningless. Note, though, that besides the theoretical oversights mentioned above, these are my main criticisms of the book. Not much, really.
To summarize, if you are teaching about high schools and students' experiences – Pope's Doing School is a must read for you and your students. If you are about to embark on a study of student engagement in school, Pope's book will be necessary for forming hypotheses and developing insightful research tools. However, if you are to send your kids to high school, Pope's book may encourage you to rethink – at least to pause and reflect on yourself, your kids, and Faircrest High. Come to think of it – if you have Pope's courage, the book might make you rethink American society and its educational ethos. Not a small endeavor, indeed.
Ingersoll, Richard M. 1993. "Loosely coupled organizations revisited." Research in the Sociology of Organizations 11, 81-112.
Merton, Robert K. 1976. Sociological Ambivalence and Other Essays. New York: Free Press.
Meyer, John W., and Brian Rowan. 1977. "Institutionalized organizations: Formal structure as myth and ceremony." American Journal of Sociology 83, 340-363.
Schneider, Barbara, and David Stevenson. 1999. The Ambitious Generation: America's Teenagers, Motivated but Directionless. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Weick, Karl E. 1976. "Educational organizations as loosely coupled systems." Administrative Science Quarterly 21, 1-19.
Yair, Gad. 2000. "Educational battlefields in America: The tug-of-war over students' engagement with instruction." Sociology of Education 73, 247-269.