Leaky First Graders, Defiant Teenagers, Jocks, and Nerds

A review of my 2012 book Schooling, Childhood, and Bureaucracy: Bureaucratizing the Child was just published in Contemporary Sociology. The book review was generally pretty nice—so I recommend people read it (sorry to non-university people, it’s mostly behind a paywall). The reviewer highlighted Chapter 4 which is about child development in the context of standardized school grades as being particularly noteworthy. Here is a brief extract from that chapter.  You can read a pre-publication version of Chapter 1 here.


Leaky First Graders, Defiant Teenagers, Jocks, and Nerds

 Standardizing Childhood and Normative

Childhood Development


There are formal and informal curricula in schools. The formal curriculum is typically spelled out in the form of standards, goals, objectives, rules, laws, and other bureaucratic markers that Durkheim described as pedagogy. But the pedagogy also includes an implicit hidden curriculum as well. The hidden curriculum is focused on reproducing society, including the status quo with its preexisting power relations as a coherent system in which citizens generate a faith in its basic moral orientations.


This includes what Bourdieu called practice and habitus, and it is discussed in some of the short-hand terms described in this chapter, like leaky first graders, defiant teenagers, jocks, and nerds….


Normative Child Development

The standardized school curriculum has embedded in it implicit assumptions about what a normative childhood will be. Rooted in it are moral assumptions about social development, learning capacity, and even brain development. Within this moral calculation, particular types of social relationships, learning, and brain change are regarded as age appropriate and normal, while the exceptions are defined as abnormal or even deviant. But this is always a contested realm, as the habitus of past identities and “group position” remembered by the powerful adults who create the schools. For this reason “child development” is always defined relative to a broader cultural standard. These are all embedded in what Durkheim called values and morality.


A useful way to ask about this is to focus on the basis for normative behavior. Where do ideas about what is normative come from? Look inside an adult, and the socialization that defined them as a child: perhaps a leaky first grader, cute third grader, cliquish middle schooler, or defiant hedonistic teenager remain. These preexisting categories are waiting in the habitus of the culture to be passed on to the next generation as surely as literacy, numeracy, and patriotism. Politicians and school administrators, not scientists, are charged with identifying what is regarded as normal child development and, by implication, what is abnormal. The consensus they develop is the basis for the planned scientific curriculum, which is age-graded so it can be adapted to the goals of the school. Ultimately it is a sociocultural assertion about what is normal, i. e., the “One Best System of Childhood” (see Fuller 2007, xi–xiii). This in turn is embedded in a school bureaucracy in various forms including calculable test scores, rationalized rules, and law.


In the rationalized United States, this resulted in typologies that tie specific ages to normative developmental skills. Underpinning this are patterned social and physiological changes, with which any curriculum—explicit or hidden—must negotiate. In turn are created cultural expectations that are embedded in the ostensibly scientific curricula, school rules, and education policies. Thus created is a paradox in how schools and childhood are administered. Bureaucracies assume predictability and constancy in human behavior because such an assumption is well suited to bureaucratic action and is rooted in behavioristic expectations. In this context, incentives and sanctions are so readily adaptable to bureaucratic planning. Bureaucratic planning embedded in such behaviorism happens even though the most modern insights of physiology, learning theory, psychology, and sociology indicate that human development cognition, inequality, etc. are more central to understanding human behavior than behaviorism. Thus the models that one is likely to learn in a university class based on “the latest research,” are different than the ones assumed by a school principal trying to maneuver a school of dozens of teachers, and hundreds (or thousands) of students through the days of the school year….


Goldstein et al (1996, 9) describe why children are different from adults in their book The Best Interests of the Child: The Least Detrimental Alternative :


1) Unlike adults, children change constantly, from one stage of growth to another. They change with regard to their understanding of events, their tolerance for frustration, and their needs for and demands on parents care for support, stimulation, guidance and restraint . . .


2) Unlike adults, who measure the passing of time by clock and calendar, children have their own built-in time sense, based on the urgency of their instinctual and emotional needs, and on the limits of their cognitive capacities . . .


3) Unlike adults, young children experience events as happening solely with reference to their own persons . . .


4) Unlike adults, children are governed in much of their functioning by the irrational part of their minds—their primitive wishes and impulses . . .


5) Unlike adults, children have no psychological conception of the bloodtie relationships until quite late in their development . . . What matters to them is the pattern of day-to-day interchanges with adults who take care of them . . .


(Slightly edited version of pp. 81-83 Schooling, Bureaucracy and Childhood: Bureaucratizing the Child by Tony Waters, 2012.  And a brief note to fans of Herbert Blumer: Yes, the mention of “group position” is a reference to Blumer’s 1958 article, “Race Prejudice as a Sense of Group Position.”)



3 thoughts on “Leaky First Graders, Defiant Teenagers, Jocks, and Nerds

  1. That comment about group position, I wonder how this influences other institutional actions, such as which kids get expelled more often and why? Also perhaps why some of us “defiant teenagers” were defying in the first place, it stinks to be molded when you know that’s what they’re doing.

    I am a fan of Blumer’s theory of group position and here’s a link to the full text pdf at JSTOR (you can read it online for free, but it’ll cost you to download it): http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/1388607?sid=21106011597493&uid=2&uid=4&uid=3739256

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