A DISTINCTLY UN-AMERICAN IDEA
from Chapter 2 of the book
New York: State University of New York Press, 1999, pp. 9-20
Jean Anyon studied fifth grade classes in five public elementary schools in rich neighborhoods and not-so-rich neighborhoods in northern New Jersey. In one school, designated executive elite, family breadwinners were top corporate executive in multinational corporations or Wall Street financial firms. Their incomes were in the top 1 percent in the United States. In a second school, designated affluent professional, family breadwinners were doctors, TV and advertising executives, and other highly paid professionals. Income were in the top 10 percent for the nation. In a third school, designated middle class, breadwinners were a mixture of highly skilled, well-paid blue- and white-collar workers and those with traditional middle-class occupations such as teachers, social workers, accountants, and middle managers. Incomes were better than average for the United States but below the top 10 percent. In a fourth and fifth school designated working class, about one-third of the breadwinners were skilled blue-collar workers; about half were unskilled or semiskilled blue-collar workers, and about 15 percent of the heads of households were unemployed.
First Anyon noted similarities among the schools. They were nearly all white. They were all located in northern New Jersey and subject to the same state requirements. They all used the same arithmetic books. They had the same language arts course of study. Two of the schools used the same basal reading series. There were startling differences, however.
In the two working-class schools, most of the teachers were born in the same city as the schools but lived in better sections. Most of them were young and had graduated from the local teachers college; many of them were single.
In the working-class schools, knowledge was presented as fragmented facts isolated from wider bodies of meaning and from the lives and experiences of the students. Work was following steps in a procedure. There was little decision making or choice. Teachers rarely explained why work was being assigned or it was connected to other assignments. Work was often evaluated in terms of whether the steps were followed rather than whether it was right or wrong. For example, one teacher led the students through a series of steps to draw a one-inch grid on their paper without telling them what they were making or what it was for. When a girl realized what they were making and said she had a faster way to do it, the teacher answered, "No, you dont. You dont even know what I am making yet. Do it this way or its wrong."
While the same arithmetic book was used in all five schools, the teacher in one working-class school commented that she skipped pages dealing with mathematical reasoning and inference because they were too hard. The teacher in the second working-class school said, "These pages are for creativity theyre extras." She often skipped them as well.
In one working-class school they used a social studies textbook that was described by its publisher as intended for "low ability students". The teachers guide referred repeatedly to "educationally deficient students" for whom the book was intended. The book was intended to provide a years book, but there was only sixteen lessons consisting of a few paragraphs followed by vocabulary drill and exercises to check recall. However, these were not special education classrooms. In the two working-class school classrooms combined, the childrens average IQ was above 100 and eight children had IQs above 125.
In the working-class schools, social studies instruction typically consisted of copying teachers notes, writing answers to textbook questions, and craft projects, such as cutting out and making a stand-up figure of a cowboy roping a steer to represent the Southwest when studying US geography. Compared to the more affluent schools in this study there was less discussion of controversial topics such as labor disputes, civil rights, and womens rights and less attention to the history of these issues.
In language arts, the teacher gave each student a duplicated sheet entitled "All About Me" and directed them to write their answers on the lines following questions such as "Where were you born?" and "What is your favorite animal?". This activity was referred to as "writing an autobiography". Children were presented with rules for where to put commas, but there was never any discussion of how commas made writing easier to understand or of the notion that punctuation called for decisions based on the intended meaning.
In science, children were routinely told to copy the directions for doing an experiment from the book. The teacher then did the experiment in front of the class as the students watched and wrote a list entitled "What We Found" on the board. The students copied it into their notebooks. A test on "What We Found" would follow.
Teachers made every effort to control students movement. They often kept children after the dismissal bell to finish their work or to punish them for misbehavior. There were no clocks in classrooms. Materials were handed out by the teacher and closely guarded. Students were ordered to remain in their seats unless given specific permission to move. When permitted to leave the room they needed a pass with the time and date.
Teachers made derogatory remarks regarding the students. A principal was reported to have said to a new teacher, "Just do your best. If they learn to add and subtract, thats a bonus. If not, dont worry about it". A second grade teacher said the children were "getting dumber every year". Only twice did Anyon hear a teacher say "please" to a student in an unsarcastic tone. She heard "Shut up" frequently.
One fifth grade teacher said the students needed the basics simple skills. When asked "why?", she responded., "Theyre lazy. I hate to categorize them, but theyre lazy". Another fifth grade teacher, who was asked why she had students endlessly copy notes from the blackboard in social studies, replied, "Because the children in this school dont know anything about the U.S., so you cant teach them much". Another teacher said, "You cant teach these kids anything. Their parents dont care about them, and theyre not interested". Another teacher answered when asked what was important knowledge for her students, "Well, we keep them busy". You have to keep reminding yourself that these children did not have low IQ scores. They were working-class children with average intelligence, some with better than average intelligence.
When Anyon asked these fifth grade students, "What do you think of when I say the word knowledge?", not a single child used the word think. Only one mentioned the word mind. When asked if they can make knowledge only one said yes.
In each category of school, Anyon observed what she called a "dominant theme". In the working class schools the dominant theme was resistance. Students vandalized school property and resisted the teachers efforts to teach. Boys fell out of chairs; students brought bugs into the classroom and released them; children lost books or forgot them; students interrupted the teacher. They showed no enthusiasm for projects into which the teacher put extra effort. They refused to answer questions and were apparently pleased when the teacher became upset. There was less resistance to easy work, and so assignments were rarely demanding.
According to Anyon these children were developing a relationship to the economy, authority, and work that is appropriate preparation to wage labor labor that is mechanical and routine. Their capacity for creativity and planning was ignored or denied. Their response was very much like that of adults in their community to work that is mechanical and routine and that denies their capacity for creativity and planning. They engaged in relentless "slowdowns", subtle sabotage, and other modes of indirect resistance similar to that carried out by disgruntled workers in factories, sales floors, and offices.
In the middle-class school, about one-third of the teachers grew up in the neighborhood of the school. Most graduated from the local state teachers college, and many of them lived in the neighborhood of the school. Some were married to other teachers, accountants, police officers, nurses, and managers of local businesses.
Teachers in the middle-class schools seemed to believe that their job was to teach the knowledge found in textbooks or dictated by curriculum experts. They valued this more than knowledge taught by experience. For example, when a child said that the plural of mouse is not mouses because "it wouldnt sound right", the teacher said that was the wrong reason. The right reason was that mouse is an irregular noun, as it says in the book.
A social studies textbook intended for use in sixth grade was used in the fifth grade classroom in the middle-class school. According to the publisher, the purpose of the book was to introduce fundamental concepts. There were "understandings" from anthropology, economics, history, geography, or political science listed in the teachers guide for each chapter.
Social studies classes involved reading the text, listening to the teachers explanations, answering the teachers questions, and occasionally doing reports. There was rarely sustained inquiry into a topic. The teacher rarely used a feature of the text entitled "Using the Main Idea" (applying main ideas to current events and personal situations), because she said she had enough to do to get them to understand the generalizations.
Knowledge in the middle-class school was "more conceptual" than in the working-class school. It was less a matter of isolated facts and more a matter of gaining information and understanding from socially approved sources. Knowledge here was like that in the working-class school, however, in that it was not connected with the lives and experiences of the students.
In the middle-class school, work was getting the right answer. Answers were words, sentences, numbers, facts, and dates. You could not make them up. They were found in books or listening to the teacher. You wrote them neatly on paper in the right order. If you got enough right answers, you got a good grade.
You got the right answer by following directions, but the directions allowed for some choice, some figuring, some decision making, and the teacher explained the purpose the purpose of the assignments and why the directions would lead to the right answer. For example, students were permitted to do steps "in their heads" rather than write them down. They were allowed to do division problems the long or short way. When reviewing homework they had to say how they did the problem as well as give their answer. Social studies consisted of reading passages and answering comprehension questions: who, what, when, where, and sometimes why. However, questions that might have led to controversial topics were avoided because parents might complain.
Work rarely called for creativity. There were little serious attention to how students might develop or express their own ideas. In a social studies project, the students were directed to find information on assigned topics and put it "in your own words". Many of the childrens products had imaginative covers and illustrations, which were largely ignored by the teacher who graded on information, neatness, and the students success in paraphrasing the sources used. Lessons that explicitly called for creativity and self-expression were "enrichment" and "for fun". They did not count toward grades.
The teachers in the middle-class school varied from strict to somewhat easygoing, but, for all of them, decisions were made on the basis of rules and regulations that were known to the students. Teachers always honored class dismissal bells. There was little excitement in the school work, and assignments did not seem to take into account the students interests of feelings, but the children seemed to believe that there were rewards: good grades lead to college and a good job. Remember, these were fifth graders.
When children in the middle-class school were asked what knowledge is, seventeen of twenty used words like learn, remember, facts, study, smartness, intelligent, know, school, study, and brains. When asked if they could make knowledge, nine said no and eleven said yes. When asked how, they said theyd look it up or listen and do what theyre told or theyd go to the library.
The dominant theme in the middle-class school was possibility. There was widespread anxiety about tests and grades but there was a pervasive belief that hard work would pay off. These students viewed knowledge as a valuable possession that can be traded for good grades, a good college education, and a good job. There was more excited patriotism around holidays here than in any other school. There were frequent auditorium assemblies with a patriotic flavor. The feeling was that America is full of promise and these children were going to cash it on it.
Anyon observed that in the middle-class school the children were developing a relationship to the economy, authority, and work that is appropriate for white-collar working-class and middle-class jobs: paper-work, technical work, sales and social services in the private and public sectors. Such work does not call for creativity. Such workers are not rewarded for critical analysis. They are rewarded for knowing the answers, for knowing where to find answers, for knowing which form, technique or procedure is correct. While this kind of work does not reward creativity or self-expression, it usually pays enough to enable workers to find opportunities for creativity and self-expression outside the workplace.
In the affluent professional school, the teachers came from elsewhere in the state. They all came from middle- or upper-class backgrounds. Most were women married to high-status professionals or executives.
Creativity and personal development were important goals for the students at the affluent professional school. Teachers wanted students think for themselves and to make sense of their own experience. Discovery and experience were important. In arithmetic, for example, students measured perimeters in the classroom and created questions for other students to answer. They collected data in surveys and did experiments with cubes and scales. They made a film on the metric system. In science students experimented in their own way to discover the properties of aluminum, copper, and glass (which heats fastest, for example), and it didnt matter whether they got the right answer. What mattered was that they discussed their ideas. When students asked, "How should I do this", teachers answered, "You decide", or, "What makes sense to you?".
There were, however, wrong answers. In arithmetic, six plus two was still eight and only eight. In science, the answer had to be consistent with observations. Students were required to have their observations and answers "verified" by other students before handing in assignments.
The social studies textbooks emphasized "higher concepts" such as "the roles of savings, capital, trade, education, skilled labor, skilled managers, and cultural factors (religious beliefs, attitudes toward change) i the process of economic development", and the understanding that "the controlling ideas of Western cultures come largely from two preceding cultures: The Judaic and Greco-Roman".
Students read and outlined the text and used it as a guide for "inquiry activities" such as baking clay cuneiform replicas, writing stories and plays and creating murals showing the division of labor in ancient societies. Several students had seen the Tutankhamen exhibit in New York one had seen it in Paris.
They devoted a lot of time to current events because, according to the teacher, "theyre so opinionated anyway, and they love it". Children often wrote editorials and brought in clippings on such topics as labor strife, inflation, and nuclear power. The teacher, however, said she had to be very careful of expressing her own opinion. "One year I had the superintendents son, the mayors son, and the daughter of the president of the board of education my room all at one time. I really had to watch what I said".
Knowledge in the affluent professional school was viewed as being open to discovery. It was used to make sense and thus it had personal value. School knowledge was presented as having relevance to lifes problems. Unlike the situation in the working-class and middle-class schools, social strife was acknowledged and discussed.
In the affluent professional school, work was creative activity carried out independently. It involved individual thought and expression, expansion and illustration of ideas, and choice of appropriate methods and materials. Products were often stories, essays or representations of ideas in murals, craft projects, and graphs. Students projects were to show originality and individuality, but they had to fit with reality that is, a creative mural could be marked down if it misrepresented the facts or concepts it was supposed to represent.
One assignment was for students to find the average number of chocolate chips in three chocolate chip cookies. The teacher announced gravely, "Ill give you three cookies, and youll have to eat your way through, Im afraid". When work was underway, she circulated giving help, praise, and reminders about getting too noisy. The children worked sitting or standing at their desks or at a bench in the back of the room or sitting on the floor.
In their study of ancient civilizations, they made a film on Egypt. One student wrote the script, the class acted it out, and one of the parents edited it. They read and wrote stories depicting ancient times. They did projects chosen from a list, all of which involved graphic representations such as murals. They wrote and exchanged letters with the other fifth grade in "hieroglyphics". The list goes on.
They discussed current events daily and were encouraged to expand on what they said and to be specific. The teachers questions were designed to help them make connections between events in the news and what they were learning in the school.
In language arts, they did not use textbooks because the principal thought textbooks hampered creativity. Each child interviewed a first grader and wrote a rebus story (2) just for that child. They wrote editorials about matters before the school board and radio plays that were sometimes acted over the school intercom. Lessons on punctuation stressed the relationship between meaning and punctuation.
Products of work were highly prized. The affluent professional school was the only school where Anyon was not allowed to take childrens work away from the school. If possible, she could duplicate it and take the copy, but if it could not be copied, she could not have it.
Control involved constant negotiation. Teachers rarely gave direct orders unless the children were too noisy. Instead, teachers commented on the probable consequences of student behavior and asked students to decide accordingly. One of the few rules regulating childrens movement was that no more than three children could be out of the room at one time. They could go to the school library at any time to get a book. They merely signed their name on the chalkboard and left the room when they needed to. There were no passes.
They sometimes negotiated what work was to be done. For example, children sometimes asked for more time before moving on to the next subject, and the teacher sometimes acquiesced. There is a remarkable footnote to this discussion. The teacher commented that she was "more structured" that year than usual because of the large number of children in the class who were considered discipline problems.
In the affluent professional school, work was not repetitious and mechanical, as it was in the working-class school; it was not knowing the correct answers, as it was in the middle-class school; it was being able to manipulate what Anyon termed symbolic capital.
The children in the affluent professional school had the least trouble answering the question "What is knowledge". Many of them used the word think and several alluded to personal activity having to do with ideas ("Figuring stuff out", "You think up ideas and then find things wrong with those ideas"). When asked, "Can you make knowledge?", sixteen said yes; only four said no.
In the affluent professional school the dominant theme was individualism with a minor theme of humanitarianism. Emphasis in the classroom was on thinking for oneself, creativity, and discovery in science and arithmetic. But there was also a pervasive climate of mutual help and concern for one another and for humanity. The principlal ended morning announcements with "Do something nice for someone today". Social class and class conflict were discussed in social studies, with a liberal spin. There was an entire textbook devoted to prejudice and discrimination. Eight of twenty students interviewed expressed antagonism toward "the rich", they said were greedy, spoiled, and snobby. This is interesting in light of the fact that these students family incomes were in the top 10 percent for the nation.
Children in this school were developing a relationship to the economy, authority, and work that is appropriate for artists, intellectuals, legal and scientific experts, and other professionals whose work is creative, intrinsically satisfying for most people, and rewarded with social power and high salaries. Although in the workplace they do not have complete control over which ideas they develop and express, affluent professionals are relatively autonomous. Their relationship to people who decide which ideas will be developed (the executive elite whom Ill get to in the next paragraph) involves substantial negotiation.
In the executive elite school, as in the affluent professional school, the teachers were women married to high-status professionals and business executives, but in the executive elite school the teachers regarded their students as having higher social status than themselves.
Knowledge in the executive elite school was academic, intellectual and rigorous. More was taught and more difficult concepts were taught. Reasoning and problem solving were important. The rationality and logic of mathematics were held up as the model for correct and ethical thinking.
Social studies knowledge was more sophisticated, complex, and analytic than in the other schools. Questions such as good and bad effects of imperialism and the reasons for conflict between social classes were discussed. However, there was little questioning of the status quo. The present distribution of wealth and power was presented as natural and timeless going back to the ancient Greeks.
Children were required to plan lessons and teach them to the class. Among other things, they were evaluated on how well they kept control of the class. The teacher said to one child who lost control of his classmates, "When youre up there, you have authority, and you have to use it. Ill back you up".
While strict attention was demanded during lessons, there was little attempt to regulate the childrens movement at other times. They were allowed into the classrooms when they arrived at schools; they did not have to wait for the bell, as in every other school in Anyons study.
Students were permitted to take materials from closets and even from the teachers desk when they needed them. They were in charge of the school office at lunch time. They did not need permission or a pass to leave the room. Because of the amount of work demanded, however, they rarely left the room.
The children were sometimes flippant, boisterous, and occasionally rude. However, they were usually brought into line by reminding them of their responsibility to achieve. "Its up to you". Teachers were polite to students. There was no sarcasm, no nasty remarks, and few direct orders.
When asked, "Can you make knowledge?", half the children in the executive elite school said yes; half said no. Compared with the affluent professional school children, these children took a more passive view toward the creation of knowledge. For many of them knowledge comes from tradition Its "out there" and you are expected to learn it.
The dominant theme in the executive elite school was excellence preparation for being the best, for top-quality performance. There was no narcissistic coddling here, but insistence upon self-discipline instead. The pace was brisker than in any other school and children were often told that they alone were responsible for keeping up.
In the executive elite school the children were developing a relationship to the economy, authority and work that is different from all the other schools. They learned grammatical, mathematical, and other vocabularies by which systems are described. They were taught to use these vocabularies to analyze and control situations. The point of school work was to achieve, to excel, to prepare for life at the top.