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

reviewed by Nicole Bowers & Jeanne Wilcox - February 08, 2017

coverTitle: “I Love Learning; I Hate School”: An Anthropology of College
Author(s): Susan D. Blum
Publisher: Cornell University Press, Ithaca
ISBN: 1501700219, Pages: 344, Year: 2016
Search for book at Amazon.com

Susan D. Blum, an anthropology professor at the University of Notre Dame, adds her voice to a growing list of critics who believe that traditional post-secondary schooling is fundamentally flawed. Through a 10-year-long odyssey involving narrative inquiry, the author conducts an anthropological study of college to understand students’ disinterest in formal learning. “I Love Learning; I Hate School”: An Anthropology of College describes her thoughtful transformation from a hard-nosed academic to a compassionate professor and critic of American higher education.

Blum begins by creating a profile of her former self, a life-long lover of learning and a die-hard fan of school. She seeks to frame her point of view as a traditional professor who upholds standards and ensures academic rigor. The author echoes the frustrations of many instructors faced with apathetic students who only seem to care about grades. Blum takes readers back to the point where her belief in the traditional system begins to erode. For example, one of her student writes in her evaluation “I don’t think Professor Blum likes college students” (p. 7).

Spurred to action by the resulting confusion and frustration, Blum begins an earnest mission to understand the disconnection between her expectations and those of her students. The author claims the ideas of learning and schooling are in conflict at the college level. Learning represents the liberal arts idea of an intellectual pursuit of knowledge producing an educated citizen of the world. However, from the perspective of students, schooling represents the pragmatic notion of obtaining a degree as a necessary credential for a good job. In her blog, My Word! Plagiarism and College Culture, Blum cites numerous cases of plagiarism and cheating as a product of the just-get-through-it mentality exhibited by many collegians. Initially, she blames students. However, as the author investigates, she begins to believe that the system of schooling sends the wrong message about learning goals to students.

Blum notes that throughout American higher education, it is claimed that college is about learning. However, when faculty members use grades to sort and motivate students, an entirely different message likely results. The author presents school as an artificial construct leading students to focus on grades and gaming the system, rather than learning. She gives examples of websites like Hack College where students acquire strategies for making it through classes. Similarly, Blum suggests that the system of Carnegie Units (e.g., credit hours) with an emphasis on time-in-seats makes it difficult for students to engage in authentic learning experiences. The author claims that educational institutions indoctrinate students in the arbitrary grammar of school, which has little to do with real learning.

While the structure of school stands out among Blum’s many concerns, she focuses deeply on the negative impact of grades on learning. In student interviews, the author overwhelmingly finds that students assume the point of school is to earn high grades. She argues that grades produce more negative effects than positive ones and are incongruent with the goal of learning. Grades function to sort, motivate, and communicate. Blum takes issue with this sorting as it assumes that these marks objectively differentiate between students. The author maintains grading in colleges is at best imprecise and at worst capricious. Specifically, it has a tendency to rely wholly on the subjective opinion of the professor. Blum points to the artificiality of grading students in comparison to finding a job where candidates are evaluated more holistically. As a form of motivation, the author believes that grades impede learning. Not only do grades encourage students to cut corners, they also rob learners of the opportunity to develop critical self-assessment skills and intrinsic motivation.

In the latter half of the book, Blum shifts her primary focus from the ills of traditional schooling to learning outside of the classroom. Through surveys and interviews, she finds that students voluntarily spend a great deal of time and energy on non-academic pursuits like clubs or athletics. These activities are not graded or compulsory. Instead, they represent avenues for authentic problem solving and engagement. The author links these types of experiences to naturalistic learning.

Blum notes that humans are born to learn. She argues that this idea is common to both anthropological and biological schools of thought. Learning is fundamental and has little in common with compulsory education. Humans acquire language, behavior, and life skills without sitting in a classroom. Learning in school focuses on cognition and abstraction, excluding other factors encouraging human learning. For example, Blum states that traditional schooling often omits the emotional, social, and physical aspects of learning. These omissions make this form of schooling appropriate for only a narrow range of students. As a result, collegians are attracted to non-academic outlets because these experiences reintegrate more natural learning aspects into their education. The idea of learning for its own sake is always seen out in the wild, beyond formal educational institutions. It is much more rare to see naturalistic learning within classrooms due to the fundamental incongruity between school and learning.

Blum calls for an educational revolution instead of reform. She suggests that college is not for everyone and the abstract cognitive pursuit of knowledge is only relevant for a comparatively small percentage of students who have academic inclinations. The author also notes that a college degree should not be a work credential. Blum suggests that we stop overly aggrandizing college as the only respected path towards a good job. Instead, we should allow young people to learn during work at an earlier age by designing authentic programs for on-the-job education.

Blum concedes that this type of academic revolution takes time. To account for this delay, the author makes recommendations for immediate classroom changes. First, she suggests we abolish grades in favor of self-evaluation. Second, Blum supports deep coverage of more topics by using jigsaw exercises. This includes giving different groups of students the responsibility for researching and teaching part of the academic content to others. The author also makes a case for assigning study partners and developing individualized study plans based on learners’ personal goals.    

It is important to note Blum acknowledges her observations and conclusions are based on her experiences at a highly selective university. As such, they may not be applicable to a broader student population. As a result, her ability to understand that traditional college can be an excellent option for a better job and a different life for those who could never be admitted to, or even afford, highly selective colleges may be somewhat hindered. Nonetheless, the author’s thoughtful dissection of traditional approaches in higher education, the authentic nature of learning that is decoupled from the classroom, and her synthesis of information gleaned from students in observations and interviews create a compelling story. The observations and suggestions detailed in this book are certainly not new or unique, but Blum’s transformational story is powerful. “I Love Learning; I Hate School” will resonate with any faculty member who shares the author's frustrations with students' lack of learning engagement. This text provides insight into the lives and motivations of today's students. It also reveals how the current system of schooling is connected to many problems professors face inside of their classrooms.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: February 08, 2017
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 21821, Date Accessed: 10/16/2021 8:24:14 AM

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About the Author
  • Nicole Bowers
    Arizona State University
    E-mail Author
    NICOLE BOWERS recently started her doctoral studies at the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at Arizona State University as part of the Learning, Literacies and Technologies Ph.D. program. Over the past 12 years, Nicole taught science to a variety of levels including both 3rd and 5th grade at Szczecin International School in Poland and biology classes at Austin Peay State University in Tennessee. Her research interests include elementary school science education and informal science learning across all ages.
  • Jeanne Wilcox
    Arizona State University
    E-mail Author
    M. JEANNE WILCOX joined the faculty of Arizona State University in 1990 as a tenured professor in the Department of Speech and Hearing Science. Since 2012, she has served as the Nadine Basha Professor in the Division of Educational Leadership and Innovation in ASU’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College. For much of her career, Professor Wilcox's funded research focused on early childhood development and interventions, with a specific focus on language and early literacy for young children at-risk for adverse developmental outcomes. More recently, Professor Wilcox received a federal grant (First in the World Competition from the US Department of Education) with the aim of increasing college success for underrepresented college students including those from low income backgrounds and those who are the first generation in their families to attend college. As Professor Wilcox and her team have begun to analyze barriers and facilitators for this group of at-risk college students, it is increasingly clear that this group may not be best served by a more traditional approach to college education and they have begun to examine effects associated with faculty use of project-based pedagogy.
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