Susan Blum, “I Love Learning, I Hate School”

Susan D. Blum has recently published an unusually personal contribution to social research on university culture, in her wide-reaching book I Love Learning, I Hate School: An Anthropology of College (2016). Blum is an anthropology professor at Notre Dame, and the book expresses a desire to make existential sense of her own confusing experience as a college teacher. As such, it struck a particular chord with me as I was trying to make sense of my own students last year at Whittier College, when I was doing my postdoc. Blum’s book speaks mainly to fellow college and university teachers; at one point, Blum addresses her readers as “dear fellow faculty” (20). As a book for teachers by a teacher, it has the counterintuitive mission of getting us to empathize with bad students, and of making sense of bad classroom atmospheres, which it considers inevitable rather than merely unfortunate. In this sense, it is a more critical and expansive alternative to the discourse of “teaching tips” and “rubrics for best practices” that circulate in a mock-cheerful — but always to my ear vaguely threatening and technocratic — fashion in numerous “Centers for Teaching and Learning.”

Blum’s substantive argument is straightforward. Everyone complains about college (Ch. 1), even though no one can agree on what it is for (Ch. 2); therefore we should take a step back to question the underlying “paradigm” of higher education (Ch. 3), which is based on a decontextualized form of “real-fake learning” and a culture of (easily gamed) obedience (Ch. 4). This leads to a culture where grades are fetishized (Ch. 5) and students, largely turned off by formal education, end up feeling more energized by non-academic activities than by their classroom teachers (Ch. 6). This leads Blum to ask how human beings learn in general, outside of school settings. She sketches a standard anthropological image of human beings as social, affective and embodied creatures; she then uses that image to draw out a contrast between the practical and imitative ways that humans learn “in the wild,” and the deliberately impractical (“Cartesian”) ways that humans are asked to learn in college (Chs. 7-8). Finally, she concludes with some notes on how education might better promote “intrinsic” motivation (Ch. 9), happiness and joy (Ch. 10), and ultimately a “learning revolution” that takes us beyond the factory model of schooling (Ch. 11).

There is a great deal that one could say about the different moments of Blum’s argument, which I can unfortunately only evoke in very broad strokes. I am happy to report that several of the chapters could work on their own as general introductions to larger bodies of critical research. The chapter on grades (ch. 5), above all, could work well in a teaching context, given its rich ethnographic corpus and its many piquant observations about grading culture. “The reified sign becomes internalized,” she quips in a section on how grades induce “anxiety and fear” (127-128). Blum’s best chapters blend ethnographic data with anthropological analysis, or synthesize others’ research into her own personal critique of college culture; as such, I recommend them to fellow teachers who want to teach about teaching.

I remain more ambivalent about Blum’s effort, in the later chapters of the book, to ground her critique of traditional college pedagogy in a necessarily very general theory of human nature. It seems to me a sufficient indictment of old-school pedagogy to observe — as Blum rightly does — that many students don’t learn much from it and feel alienated by it. Is it really necessary to claim also that it is contrary to our species being? Surely one could make a compelling counter-argument that boredom, inauthenticity and alienation, however regrettable in the abstract, are an irreducible part of the human experience — and in that sense, traditional lecture pedagogy may be just as representative of “human nature” as its progressive counterparts.

But that is trivia; the important point, it seems to me, is that Blum’s book is organized by two competing desires: one more theoretical, another more therapeutic. On one hand, Blum has an understandable academic desire to theorize, to produce conceptual closure. She aims to be able to state definitively, “here is why college, in general, doesn’t work.” And she does eventually sum up her explanation:

The quintessential college situation [doesn’t work because it] has students without genuine responsibility being force-fed, not allowed to let their curiosity guide them, presented with reason and logic over emotion or passion, being assessed individually, and lacking any physical or practical activities. (189)

There is much to be said for this view, which derives, as Blum acknowledges, from a long heritage of educational criticism dating back at least to Rousseau’s Emile. It also has a number of problems, notably the seeming implausibility of actually bridging the gap between a bad present and an idealized possible future, and the corresponding risk of reducing a complex set of present institutional realities to the simplified image of a common “paradigm.” Blum is well aware of this risk, but she tries to avoid it by treating Notre Dame’s affluent, largely white students as representative of a “quintessential college situation.”

This leads, occasionally, to some unacknowledged undertones about race and class. At one point Blum offers examples of “practical skills”:

You need to learn to operate the new dishwasher, or you need to program the home theater that you spent thousands of dollars on. You take yoga classes, or Italian lessons, or cake decorating. Your boss sends you to learn the new software that will reimburse employees for their professional expenses. Factory workers may be sent to accumulate modules related to their precise needs. (77)

Here, “you” seems to interpellate the reader as someone who does yoga and has expensive tastes, whereas “factory workers” appear as the other, voiced in the third person plural. The working classes thus get somewhat marginalized in Blum’s image of educated subjects. A few pages earlier, Blum also remarks:

Granted, generalizations are always dangerous. Students growing up in a two-professional household with a taste for classical music and organic food will not be the same as adolescents raising their younger siblings while Mom is in jail. (60)

I thought that Blum could have been more direct here about structures of race and class difference, and about her own invocation of stereotypes about those structures, since her comparison, I thought, has clear racial overtones in the North American context. Of course, Blum’s examples tend to reflect her own elite institutional context, but for this very reason, I found that her book raised major questions about method.

Blum effectively takes the culturally dominant image of college (the 4-year American elite experience) as if it were also the analytically central image of American higher education. Personally I incline towards the structuralist view that there are no “quintessential” situations, since the analytical heart of a cultural system consists in a system of organized differences between cases, rather than in a single quintessential example. If all social essences are differential and relational, then a general “anthropology of college” in the United States would need at a minimum to contrast elite with non-elite institutions, in a way that Blum systematically resists doing.* And as a comparative scholar of higher education, I also felt some qualms with the implicitly national framing of the project. I wonder whether Blum would consider the very category of “college” to be a specifically American cultural construct?

But there is a less theoreticist way of reading Blum’s book which I highly recommend, which gets us to the other major desire animating her project. I found that the book can be read less as a comprehensive anthropological theory of “college” in general, and more as a therapeutic intervention for reflective, self-aware university teachers. As a very inexperienced university teacher myself, I was most moved by Blum’s ongoing efforts to process her own strange experiences as a teacher — to make sense of those weird genuine moments where something happens affectively that breaks through the screen of classroom ritual and affects us, the supposed authority figures.

Thus we encounter here a bad sexist moment where a male student tries to intimidate Blum, and get her fired for giving him a bad grade (30-31); a perplexing moment where her student wrote that “I don’t think Professor Blum likes college students” (7); and a flattering moment where one of her advisees comes to name her daughter Susan (30). We find frank disclosures about the ways that teaching comes to affect teachers, making them cry, laugh, traverse joy and despair. And we see that teachers, in the person of Blum, can indeed occasionally get closer to self-consciousness.

True to her own theory of human beings as social, emotional beings, Blum has a social and emotional stake in her project. Its strength is precisely that it is not an abstract piece of Lévi-Straussian cultural analysis. And the psychodynamic heart of the project, I thought, was its critique of teachers’ overidentification with their students, demanding comparison with my teacher Lauren Berlant’s (1997) study of feminist pedagogies of intimacy. Blum’s psychodynamic story about teaching runs something like this (I’m paraphrasing): “I used to be mad at my students because I thought they were failures if they were not good students like me; but finally I learned that it was impossible for them to become me, because they are driven by their own imperatives, which are not about being good students; and so I began to rethink my pedagogy without my desire to overidentify with my students, which had wound up creating so many insoluble antagonisms.”

In this sense, the book is a powerful work of anthropology not because it meditates on human nature or advances a comprehensive theoretical synthesis, but precisely because it tries to grapple with otherness: it discovers the rationality of the other. In the end, what Blum discovers is that her students, far from being bad versions of herself, are acting rationally in irrational situations.

Only the most naive would fail to be strategic… If one of the goals of education is to learn something… students are instead mastering techniques of looking like they are learning something. (36)

Here I must insert a bit of pedagogical autobiography, which seems in keeping with Blum’s own project. In my teaching last year in California, I found that my students generally were good-natured, affable, and good-intentioned. But they also were quite disinterested in academic knowledge and ritual for its own sake; they tended to want good grades without wearing themselves out in the process; they were largely attuned to non-academic parts of their lives (sports, extracurriculars, working-class jobs); they expected a contractual, fairly hierarchical classroom experience (you ask us for X, we provide Y, and our exchange is done); and they were highly responsive to incentives or disincentives.

For instance, if I planned something as open-ended as a general discussion of a given reading, most students opted strategically not to read — hoping, I suspected, that a minority of more dedicated classmates would pick up the slack and facilitate group discussion. And in the end, I often went home frustrated by the incompatibility between my desire to have a relaxed, nondisciplinary classroom that still included learning, and my students’ desire to find paths of least resistance.

Having just had that experience, I learned a great deal from Blum about processing the classroom. It’s validating to read that other teachers sometimes go home and have nightmares about odd classroom moments. Or that other teachers have those funny moments where “the spirits are happy” and “it all comes together to work” (256). Of course, I was already convinced before I started reading this book that traditional pedagogy is authoritarian and at best fundamentally limited. And I was already convinced as well by the point — often repeated here — that since education partly mirrors society, an irrational and unjust society is unlikely to welcome a utopian educational system. Social change cannot be accomplished by schooling alone. And indeed, Blum herself has no special program for university reform: she seems content to generally work within the existing system and make it, in a small way, more humane. But the point of the book is not to have a program. It is more about amplifying our capacities, as teachers, for self-knowledge and self-critique.

In the end, I recommend the book above all to younger teachers like myself, or in any event to teachers who are not too set in their ways. I Love Learning, I Hate School gives us a vast bibliography for further reading about teaching and learning; it models an admirable project of subjecting our own fantasies about teaching to critical scrutiny; above all, it makes space for the mixed feelings that teaching inevitably elicits. While there are moments where Blum aligns herself with today’s not-really-very-revolutionary proponents of a “learning revolution,” fundamentally she knows that revolutionary rhetoric is just rhetoric. Revolutionary practice, if there is such a thing, would be a much slower, harder process.

* I have elsewhere argued for a more radical skepticism about this project (Thorkelson 2015), suggesting that it is downright impossible today to produce any truly general analysis of U.S. higher education, because in short, different institutional actors are unable to really understand each other’s positions, being systematically blinded by their own positions in the system.


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Eli Thorkelson

Eli Thorkelson edits Academography and also keeps a research blog at decasia.

3 thoughts on “Susan Blum, “I Love Learning, I Hate School””

  1. An intriguing review of what is clearly an interesting book. I am looking forward to reading it after this. I only want to put a pitch in here again for the recognition that we have such a limited ethnographic, personal, and moral understanding of all the relevant stakeholders in universities. Even if we had 1 book each like this on senior administrators (who I interviewed and found deeply troubled professionally and existentially in many cases), faculty junior and senior, lecturers, graduate students in various fields, undergraduate students in various fields, trustees, controllers, institutional planners, janitors, etc., we would be in a better place. Most of our debates and analysis happen on the level of dimensionless actors. Since the social fabric of the university is broken, surely we cannot recreate it if we don’t know the relevant actors and their hopes.

  2. Hi Davydd,

    Absolutely, I agree with you that right now, as you put it, “Since the social fabric of the university is broken, surely we cannot recreate it if we don’t know the relevant actors and their hopes.”

    My main thought about this, though, is that what we would need to do this is not just ethnographic research about different actors, but actual participatory processes that get different actors working together to co-create the institution.

    In other words, I think that the whole hierarchical-corporate structure of most institutions makes it impossible for there to be much of a “social fabric,” because the lower-status actors are structurally segregated from each other, and the higher-status actors are generally out of touch with the realities of the lower status actors.

    I suspect we are more or less on the same page about this, as I’m in the middle of your book now and this seems to be what you are saying there…

    1. Eli, I am glad the comment made sense to you as much of your work models perfectly the kind of understanding of the stakeholders that is required. While I agree with what you say, operationally, the kinds of participatory processes I advocate never involve every single member of the organization. So for the kinds of participatory processes we agree are needed, we have to begin with stakeholder identification. What are the categories? Within each category, which are key differences to capture (job, education, class, gender, ethnicity, etc.). Then there is a lengthy process by a planning group of working this out and then identifying stakeholders from each of these categories who could participate effectively (Some relevant actors simply are too shy or too turned off or too busy to become involved). Then the process of reconstruction can begin. So this all depends on really understanding who are the stakeholders, what the relevant differences are within stakeholder groups, etc. So it seems to me that detailed knowledge of the sort we are needing to develop for many of these groups are still missing. Our images of the work of others often are misleading but we can find that out and correct ourselves to be able to incorporate them effectively.

      Just to draw on personal experience, many of the skilled accountants at Cornell think the accounting system is totally dysfunctional (it is) and they have lots of ideas about how to fix it that no one in the administration wants to hear. And within that group, those who do this for student loans, travel advances, NSF and DoD grants, etc all have different experiences and expertise that would be necessary in redesigning the system.

      Davydd

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