Anti-intellectualism and the “game of school”

Last week I attended the induction ceremony for the latest members to be welcomed into my high school’s chapter of the National Honor Society. I watched with pride as many of my students took the stage, candles in hand, the students’ pictures and short biographies flashing up on the screen behind them. I was reminded quite powerfully of why it is such a joy to be a part of these young people’s’ lives.

I couldn’t help thinking, though, that these are the exact kids that some people talk about when they say that some kids are “good at the game of school.” I know that I have used this phrase before, as have many people whom I respect. At its best, the phrase is intended to convey the critique that schools are not “real life” and that learning in schools is not entirely genuine. At its worst, however, this term implies that the students themselves are somehow inauthentic, or even “grade grubbers” whose achievements are hollow and whose trophies are cheap things made of tin and plated with fools-gold.

Well, for one thing, I find it odd that adults set up this “game,” and then mock the students who are bright enough to perceive the rules, motivated enough to play by those rules, and skilled enough to master those rules. Doesn’t our society lionize people who are good at playing games? Football players, titans of finance and industry, and successful actors and musicians are all celebrated. Heck, we even assume that people who are good at one of these games must be good at all other games as well; why else would we allow those at the top of the tech industry to tell us how to organize our schools? Everything they touch must turn to gold, right? But that’s a post for another day…

More importantly, however, is the question of whether school really is an empty game. I know that school doesn’t work well for all kids. There are times when I think that maybe it only works well for a minority of kids. But there are some students who work very hard to achieve the honors and accolades that we set forth as prizes. As I looked at the students on the stage last week, I saw some of the nicest, hardest working, and most talented students in our community. They have shown me they are thoughtful, analytical, and independent-minded individuals. And these aren’t simply students who get high grades; they are the students who participate in the class fundraisers, who volunteer as big brothers and big sisters, and serve as class officers. I know for a fact that some of these kids have significant disabilities or have faced major disruptions or even tragedies in their lives, and presume that at least several of the students whom I do not know well have also overcome challenges. These kids have earned the praise that was heaped upon them that evening, and more.

There are things we need to change about our schools. But to dismiss these kids as “playing the game of school” is nothing more than anti-intellectualism masquerading as high-minded criticism. It’s a phrase I vow to use no longer.

Image: Bromann, Fabian. Playing Game of Life. 2007. Flickr. Web. 11 Nov. 2014. <;.


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