School Status Moves

As I was blogging about school, I happened across a fantastic film:

The beauty of The Class is that it puts the lie to the one-teacher-can-make-a-difference myth propagated by so many other films; Bégaudeau may well have an impact on his students, but he and the film have the wisdom to understand that some kids can’t be reached, and teachers often find that cultural or bureaucratic conditions leave their hands tied.

By the director of the also great Heading South, The Class is about:

Lessons schoolchildren learn on their way to the office, factory, shop, unemployment line and perhaps even prison: sit down, raise your hand, stand up, get in line, keep quiet. … The Class slides its points in at an angle, letting them emerge from the children’s chatter.

Watching this film twice made it clear to me that the main classroom dynamic, at least in inner city classrooms, is status moves. Teachers struggle to maintain control and respect, while students struggle to one-up one another and to avoid being dominated by teachers. When getting lower grades is the price of preserving their pride, it is a price most students are willing to pay. Students may not learn much about conjugating French verbs, but they learn lots about how best to gain respect and when they can and can’t resist domination.

Some describe such students as “impulsive,” or “present-oriented,” for sacrificing long-term success to gain momentary pleasures of defiance. But this seems to me to miss the point. I mostly did what I was told in school, but not because I weighed distant future success against current humiliation. I didn’t frame obeying the teacher as humiliation; I framed teacher-praise as raising my status, not as selling out to the man. And I didn’t see my teachers as representatives of a ruling class that unfairly keeps my people down.

I’m not sure where these framings come from, but to me this mildly confirms that one of the main functions of school is to get kids to accept the sorts of ranking and dominance that are common in industrial societies.

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