Corridor Cultures: Mapping Student Resistance at an Urban High School

reviewed by David C. Brotherton - March 03, 2009

coverTitle: Corridor Cultures: Mapping Student Resistance at an Urban High School
Author(s): Maryann Dickar
Publisher: New York University Press, New York
ISBN: 0814720099, Pages: 212, Year: 2008
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Why do some reforming schools fail despite the progressive ideals and commitment to the students of their administrators and teachers? Is it the policies that are wrong, based as so many are on bureaucratic compromises that often undermine the original principles of the plan? Or is there something amiss in our age-old White, middle-class attempt to bring education and enlightenment to the masses, to provide “them” with the cultural capital that will allow “them” to compete a little more equally on a disastrously unequal playing field? The answer, according to this latest contribution to the schools’ resistance literature, appears to be the latter, as Professor Dickar concludes from her years of teaching in a working-class, primarily Black (i.e., African-American, Haitian, and Afro-Caribbean) school euphemistically called Renaissance High in Brooklyn and complemented by her one year of field research at the same institution.

After collecting data that consisted of thirty-seven open-ended interviews from a range of students (vis-a-vis age and academic orientation) and student-based focus groups, seventeen interviews with teachers and administrators, and observations of hallway and classroom interactions and “scanning” rituals (i.e., the daily search and destroy mission of security officers at the gates of so many public schools), the author makes the case that schools are sites of conflicting values and cultures (no surprise here), spaces of resistance from multitudes of students (no surprise here either), and a work place for teachers who are compromised by their position in the ideological apparatus. Thus, as is by now well documented in the literature, especially that of critical pedagogy, teachers on the one hand mediate between the valued knowledge, comportment and language of the dominant culture (this might be done in the name of empowerment for some or assimilation for others), and the local, race-ethnic, “street,” lower-class culture and life-worlds of the students on the other. The result is, of course, a contest of sorts, an endless round of performance rituals, strategies and exercises in which well-intentioned (mostly White) pedagogues struggle vainly to achieve a modicum of mutual educational satisfaction amid some form of classroom social order while many of their charges try every trick in the book to trip them up. From the disruption of carefully-prepared lesson plans by class clowns (a form of carnivalesque rupture) to the refusal to abide by the imposed regulation of school time (likened to the conflict between the hidden and official transcripts of James Scott’s resistors’ paradigm) to the conquering of hallway space by an assortment of male and female subcultures (who mostly succumb to the heterosexist normativity of the patriarchal hegemony), all are cited as instances of schooling’s intrinsic antagonisms, demonstrating eventually why reform often doesn’t work. It’s an interesting proposition, but do the analyses and empirical accounts jibe with the conclusion?

At the theoretical level I am sympathetic with the author in her argument that much of the resistance and social reproductionist literature is locked into an either/or impasse. In the Willis (1997) perspective, students resist with intuitive insight into the mechanisms of oppression only to create a rod for their own backs while in the Ogbu (1978) discourse, it is the historical injury of the group that determines student habitus with similar results. In contrast, Dickar insists that resistance occurs along a continuum with students understood as situated, i.e., viewed in their multiple settings within the school, from the “contact zones” of their classrooms to the “exclave” third spaces of their hallways. This is necessary, argues Dickar, if we are to better grasp the range of meanings and politics behind student resistances which should inform our educational interventions and practices. In this more holistic construction of schooling, students are read as ambivalent and fluid in their orientations towards formal education with many more gradations placed on the student-teacher-schooling relationship than are generally present in the binary bound literature. Probably the best chapter in the book is the discussion of the hallways where we read of the plethora of contexts and types of student subterranean social life which compete mercilessly with the life of the mind. However, while the author has captured an important slice of the schooling experience I am troubled by a number of omissions, both in the literature and in the empirical evidence.

First, I am struck by the failure to reference Coleman’s classic work in which he argued in the late 1950s that much of schooling consisted of a competition over social status. As Coleman wrote in 1959:

…we are beset by a peculiar paradox: in our complex industrial society there is increasingly more to learn, and formal education is ever more important in shaping one’s life chances; at the same time, there is coming to be more and more an independent “society of adolescents,” an adolescent culture which shows little interest in education and focuses the attention of teenagers on cars, dates, sports, popular music, and other matters just as unrelated to school. (p. 330)

It seems to me that it would be important to engage this milestone in the literature not simply to look at the continuities and discontinuities of school life but also to understand the shifts occurring as we have moved from an industrial to a post-industrial society with all the problems this brings for the legitimacy of the educational mission.

Second, in the spatial analysis of the school, the presumption that the hallways are controlled by the students is too overstated. During my own ethnographic sorties into large low-tired public high schools in New York City, I observed a continual battle over such areas. Only in the most dysfunctional schools did I ever see this contest being won by the students outright and then it was usually a temporary victory until security crack-downs were ordered by the local officialdom. Further, I witnessed a lot more teacher involvement in the daily school and non-school lives of students than Professor Dickar seems to have found. Of course, I saw the opposite also, i.e., teachers who had little contact with students other than during class time. The point is that just as students exist on a continuum of resistance so too do the teachers, and it is important not to overlook the range of teacher types and their own ambivalences vis-a-vis the official educational project and its transcripts.

Finally, if Dickar is to draw the rather important social reproductionist conclusion that most of the students eventually came “to occupy the same social and economic locations as their parents” (p. 188), then this has to be proven or at least given some empirical validity. Part of the problem with such critical interpretive studies is that while they undoubtedly provide interesting insights into the proverbial black box, they often lack the kind of longitudinal commitment that can really examine the grounded relationship between material and ideological structures and student/youth agency, or that between youth subcultures, schooling and political consciousness. These relationships are grounded in educational, sociological and criminological areas which are sorely in need of investigation as we enter a period of unprecedented social change and conflict.

Despite these shortcomings and the less than convincing claim that her study demonstrated why reforms were not working (for Dickar never seriously analyzes in what ways the school failed to reach its stated goals), the author has provided a contribution that will revise some of the resistance literature and help to extend our theorizing in new and important areas. If nothing else, her efforts to apply seriously the perspectives of Scott (1990) and Soja (1996) to the high school setting should be warmly welcomed, and perhaps the author’s next work will see her address the longer term questions of resistance to which I have alluded. And who knows? As the Establishment’s appetite for coercive social control solutions to lower-class student achievement and conformity start to wane, we might actually get back to that all important conundrum, especially in a recession-cum-depression: whither the working-class student?


Coleman, J.S. (1959). Academic achievement and the structure of competition. Harvard Education Review, 29, (4), 330-351.

Ogbu, J. (1978). Minority education and caste: The American system in cross-cultural perspective. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

Scott, J. (1990). Domination and the art of resistance: Hidden transcripts. New Haven, CT: Yale UP.

Soja, E. (1996). Third space: Journeys to Los Angeles and other real-and-imagined places. Oxford: Blackwell.

Willis, P. (1977). Learning to labor: How working class kids get working class jobs. Westmead, UK: Saxon House.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: March 03, 2009 ID Number: 15586, Date Accessed: 5/27/2022 5:41:29 PM

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