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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  • Jim Purdy

    “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.”

    I’m not sure if you’re saying that should be a school function, or if you’re just being realistic and saying that is how the schools actually do function.

    You probably don’t mean it this way, but I see a danger in forcing kids to accept an assigned social status. We have historically had too much ranking based on race, gender, appearance, religion or other categories.

    Schools should teach kids to break through barriers, not to accept them.

    Jim Purdy

  • Buck Farmer

    This jives with a study I read many years ago about how to reduce competition within the classroom and to help quiet underachievers succeed. Also, perhaps to reduce bullying?

    The author’s hypothesis was that mostly students were competing for teacher attention/praise which distorted their behavior towards each other. When students were instead oriented around group projects that required success of the entire group, they became much more sympathetic to other perspectives.

    I wish I could find that study…

  • Petrik Runst

    Professor Hanson,

    One might want to think about another effect of schooling, i.e. filtering. It has been shown (and I have read this before but cannot find the paper, so here and here are some alternative links) that rule breaking behavior is linked to some forms of entrepreneurship and leadership behavior. So maybe by exposing the deviants to the filter, and forcing them to painfully reveal who they are, and by also knowing how smart they are, people will self-select into certain categories. The smart-deviant can become president or entrepreneur, the lowIQ-deviant can become nothing, and the lowIQ-adapted person can become the “cog in the machine”

    BTW I am not sure I believe this, but its fascinating.

  • James Babcock

    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.

    What might predict whether a student will come to see his or her teachers as “representatives of a ruling class that unfairly keeps my people down”? Seems to me like it could be mostly determined by the student’s socioeconomic status: lower-class students are much more likely to see it that way. As we all know, socioeconomic status is a strong predictor of academic performance. I’ve usually seen this explained in terms of receiving more parental support, but perhaps the attitude students develop towards their teachers is a better explanation.

  • Alan Crowe

    Industrial societies differ from earlier societies. Think back to Roman times. You are on your way to a temple to make a sacrifice to a god. You stop on the way to buy a live chicken or rabbit for your sacrifice.

    Does god prefer chicken or rabbit. We might say that there is no god and therefore no answer, but human societies don’t work like that. The trouble that you get into if you get this wrong is real. So it is common to say that there is a real answer and that this reality is socially constructed.

    There is politics going on behind the scenes, perhaps even subconsciously, as those who raise chickens struggle to get chickens defined as most beloved by god, and those who raise rabbits struggle to get rabbits defined as most beloved by god. Who wins? It matters a lot to the participants in the struggle, but one answer is not more efficient that the other.

    Skipping forward in time 2000 years things are very different. Instead of going to a temple you are trying to design a long bridge. Should it be suspended from steel cables or should it be a stone viaduct with numerous arches? In some ways the steel/stone decision is like the rabbit/chicken decision.

    There is politics going on behind the scenes as those who smelt steel struggle to be steel defined as the right material for bridges and those who quarry stone struggle to get stone defined as the right material for bridges. Who wins? It matters a lot to the participants in the struggle and one answer is more efficient than the other so there are broader consequences for society as a whole.

    In industrial society reality is no longer socially constructed and we lose heavily if we do things the old way, deciding technical matters politically. Only a minority have the intellectual capacity to apprehend technical reality. The prosperity that industrial society produces is only available when ranking promotes that minority and trains every-one to defer to their technical knowledge.

    Perhaps the “main functions of school is to get kids to accept the sorts of ranking and dominance that are common in industrial societies.” What function should school have? Perhaps it is important that school gets kids to accept the ranking and deference needed to prosper when reality is not socially constructed.

  • Robin Hanson

    Jim, what-is analysis should precede what-should-be analysis.

    Petrik, sure if school serves to make kids accept ranking and domination, it will also sort them by how much this has taken.

    James, I expect parental support matters primarily in terms of influencing kids attitudes toward school.

    Alan, deference to authority does tend to produce deference to technical experts in their areas of expertise.

  • Joshua Zelinsky

    Status matters a lot in these situations for one simple reason: Humans decide whom they listen to in part based on status. If the kids decide that the teachers are of low status, they are less likely to listen to anyone.

    Incidentally, the notion of a single teacher making the difference is definitely a myth (or at least is very rare). Take for example, the case of Jaime Escalante the teacher whose work was made into the movie “Stand and Deliver.” It is often portrayed as the work of a single teacher who believed in his students. But in fact, Escalante ran a program which took many years to get off the ground and required the large-scale cooperation of other teachers and administration. That legacy has then been completely distorted into a hero story. Here’s an excellent article on the subject.

  • nazgulnarsil

    “I’m not sure where these framings come from”

    usually when you get close to an issue that is verboten I get the sense that you’re writing with a smile and wink. but come on.

  • Summerspeaker

    Yes, this is why I loathe the educational system as it stands now. As you say, school serves to condition submission and creates hierarchy for its own sake. The best psychological research identifies the competitive, grade-driven method as harmful at every level, yet the practice persists.

  • Tracy W

    Robin Hanson, have you read Judith Harris’s The Nurture Assumption?

    In this she argues plausibly that
    1. Children are not socialised by their parents.
    2. Children are more socialised by their peers. Eg most obviously children will acquire the accent of their peers, not their parents, if the two are different. Judith Harris has some interesting studies of deaf children from those decades in which sign language was suppressed at deaf schools – most deaf children are born to hearing parents and most teachers at schools at those times were hearing themselves, but the deaf children created their own cultures and sign languages.
    3. People’s behaviour is heavily context dependent. For example, as a child I was mostly the smallest in my class at school but I was older and bigger than my brothers at home (I left home about 30 seconds before I was outgrown). I could physically dominate my brothers, but not my peers at school, different modes of interaction were needed in the two places. As an adult, this happens too.
    4. People tend to divide themselves up into groups, depending on what groups are salient, and then exaggerate the differences between the groups. Judith Harris argues that the group-contrast effects will come from small differences in the starting groups, which can be entirely chance, or can be the result of older patterns of behaviour, as in black studentss who start attending previously-white schools, although she notes that this has not been properly tested yet. This can explain why so black colleges and single-sex girls schools have produced high-achieving leaders and scientists, eg both Margaret Thatcher and Ruth Richardson (Minister of Finance of NZ who cut government spending heavily in the 1990s) went to single-sex girls schools, they clearly were not socialised to think that girls should be nice and gentle. I went to a single-sex girls school, and while not as tough-minded as Thatcher or Richardson, I do find it interesting that I have a mental gap between being female and being feminine, I’m always female but feminine is something I put on and off as it suits me.

    I of course remain skeptical that schools actually do get kids to accept the sorts of ranking and dominance that are common in industrial societies, whatever their function may be I see no supporting evidence that they do achieve this.

    • TGGP

      “black studentss who start attending previously-white schools”
      Stuart Buck wrote a book about that. Thomas Sowell has also written some interesting stuff about how some all-black schools succeeded.

  • mjgeddes

    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

    Ever wondered why I seem so stir-crazy and angry all the time Robin? I’m through taking orders. The system must die.

  • Tracy W

    Robin Hanson, have you read Judith Harris’s The Nurture Assumption?

    In this she argues plausibly that:
    1. Children are not socialised by their parents.
    2. Children are more socialised by their peers. Eg most obviously children will acquire the accent of their peers, not their parents, if the two are different.
    3. People’s behaviour is heavily context dependent.
    4. People tend to divide themselves up into groups based on saliency, and then exaggerate differences between the groups, even if the differences were first entirely a matter of chance. This theory could explain why Margaret Thatcher and Ruth Richardson (Minister of Finance in NZ in the early 90s, cut government spending) got to the positions they did and had such tough policies, at their single-sex girls schools they had different socialisation experiences.

  • Rob

    Much better than Heading South are Cantet’s Time Out and Human Resources.

  • Matt

    I certainly do remember weighting future success against current boredom, but I didn’t really experience not knowing something as being humiliating, rather as natural or if it was humiliating as a just consequence of not knowing something (if you don’t know something, it’s fair enough if people respect you less than someone who does).

    I also can’t say as I really cared too much about my status vis-a-vis my peers or my teacher (at least to my perception), but just what I thought about myself. Guilt vs shame. (Perhaps that’s because guilt seems more high status and I’m merely trying to explain my reactions in an optimal way, if I’m trying to cram things into your schema or perhaps because I’d internalized particular values).

  • Chip Smith

    It’s been years since I’ve seen it, but Fred Wiseman’s 1968 documentary High School can be interpreted along similar lines. Another fascinating doc on the institutional culture of public schooling (in a contemporary urban setting) is Hard Times at Douglass High.

  • Robin Hanson

    Tracy, yes I’ve read and recommend.

    Rob and Chip, I’ll check those out.

  • Steve Sailer

    Here’s my review from The American Conservative:

    “The Class,” a slice-of-life drama tracking a year in an inner city Parisian junior high school, has been greeted rapturously, winning the top prize at the Cannes film festival. The critical acclaim stems mostly from “The Class” not being Hilary Swank’s 2007 “Freedom Writers” or all those other tiresome Nice White Lady movies in which heroic teachers overcome “the soft bigotry of low expectations” and turn their charges into Nobel Laureates.

    In contrast, this French film offers a refreshingly realistic depiction of the frustrations of teaching. It’s not wholly plausible—as in all school movies, there is only a single class in “The Class”—but it’s almost unique in suggesting that student quality matters.

    “The Class” is based on an autobiographical novel by schoolteacher François Bégaudeau. In the manner of WWII hero Audie Murphy, who played himself in the film version of his memoir “To Hell and Back,” Bégaudeau portrays a teacher named M. Marin. “The Class” could be called “To Heck and Back” because “inner city” doesn’t mean quite the same thing in Paris as it does in Detroit. The French like their cities, so the riotous public housing projects are out in Paris’s dreary suburbs. The Parisian 14-year-olds in “The Class” aren’t gun-packing gangbangers, as in Hollywood movies. They’re just mouthy adolescents, lazy, not terribly bright, and full of ressentiment at the dominance of elitist French culture.

    M. Marin’s French literature class is half-French and half-minority, with the unrulier Muslims, black and white, absorbing most of his attention. The smartest and most respectful student is a Chinese immigrant, while the worst troublemaker is Souleymane from Mali in sub-Saharan Africa. One well-spoken lad who hopes to win admission to the elite Lycée Henri IV goes largely ignored in the turmoil caused by his less intelligent classmates. They constantly monitor whether they are being disrespected, so they can get off task. Griping about being dissed is more fun than being forced to reveal to the other kids that they can’t do the work. Marin banters with them, but he’s too genteel to thrive amidst all the dominance struggles.

    Now in his fifth year, Marin is no longer an idealist. When a naive colleague suggests that Marin should assign Voltaire’s Candide, he demurs, “The Enlightenment will be tough for them.” Marin tries to get the class to read The Diary of Anne Frank instead (which, in “Freedom Writers,” turns teacher Erin Gruwell’s slum students into prodigies of literary creativity), but it mostly annoys Marin’s heavily Muslim class.

    The triumph of multiculturalist ideology is less complete in France than in most other Western countries. Having successfully assimilated European immigrants by immersion in the French language, the French tend to assume that these latest newcomers must eventually wake up and appreciate the inherent superiority of French culture. In his grammatical examples illustrating the imperfect subjunctive (which is employed solely in upscale written French), Marin uses only European names. (That’s a habit that has been drilled out of American teachers.) The students, however, subscribe to American ideas about multiculturalism. An obnoxious girl of North African descent objects to the teacher’s Eurocentric names as “Honkies, Frenchies, Frogs!”

    And why do they need to learn the imperfect subjunctive, anyway? “It’s bourgeois,” the children argue, parroting generations of celebrated French leftist intellectuals, not realizing that you can’t get to be a celebrated French leftist intellectual unless you’ve mastered French grammar.

    At a teacher’s meeting attended (bizarrely) by two bored student representatives who giggle in the back row, the faculty plots to suspend Souleymane. Marin urges mercy, arguing that Souleymane’s not bad, he’s just reached his limits academically. The two students sit upright, scandalized that a teacher would suggest that any student is below average in intelligence. The next day, the girls start a brouhaha in class over this, which worsens when Marin responds using grammar too sophisticated for them to interpret correctly. In the ensuing melee, Souleymane unintentionally smacks a bystander in the eye.

    After he is expelled, the classroom atmosphere improves. Still, by the end of the year, only the smart students have learned much.

    “The Class” is filmed in that unattractive quasi-documentary style—claustrophobic close-ups on cheap digital video—that has become de rigueur for prestige films. There’s no music on the soundtrack, and almost no humor, either. The slow “real-time” pacing effectively conveys the boredom felt by many students, but the opportunity cost is that there’s no room for an engaging plot.

  • sark

    That this is one of the functions of schooling makes sense.

    But one thing I don’t understand is how it could have come to be this way. Did we have a subconscious understanding that we want kids to grow up getting used to authority, and somehow that biased our policy decisions wrt. schooling?

  • Batocchio

    The Class is an excellent film, and I appreciate that you’ve read Impro. If you haven’t already, you may want to check out Elliot Eisner’s writings on the Explicit, Implicit and Null Curricula in a classroom. Basically, the Explicit Curriculum is what the students are purportedly studying – for instance, Algebra I. The Implicit Curriculum is more about status and social dynamics. It may be sit down and shut up, obey authority, or in a better classroom, it may include: make original observations, ask interesting questions, work collaboratively with classmates. The Null Curriculum is whatever isn’t covered, and by implication isn’t important. For instance, certain perspectives on historical events may be ignored, certain worthy authors may be excluded from the canon, etc. and those omissions may have less to due with time constrains than content. In any case, I’ve found Eisler’s terms provide a useful framework for discussing some of these issues.

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