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How to Succeed in School Without Really Learning

The Credentials Race in American Education

David F. Labaree


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Getting ahead and getting an education are inseparable in the minds of most Americans. David Labaree argues, however, that the connection between schooling and social mobility may be doing more harm than good, for the pursuit of educational credentials has come to take precedence over the acquisition of knowledge.

Labaree examines the competing intellectual and ideological traditions that have fought for dominance in our public schools from the nineteenth century to the present. He claims that by thinking of education primarily as the route to individual advancement, we are defining it as a private good—a means of gaining a competitive advantage over other people. He endorses an alternative vision, one that sees education as a public good, providing society with benefits that can be collectively shared—for example, by producing citizens who are politically responsible and workers who are economically productive. He points out that when education is seen primarily as a private consumer good, a number of consequences follow. Formal characteristics of schooling—grades, credits, and degrees—come to assume greater weight than substantive characteristics, such as actually learning something. Grading becomes more important for its social consequences than for its pedagogical uses. For these and other reasons, the pursuit of certification and degrees takes precedence over the goals of learning, and the private benefits of schooling take precedence over its democratic and civic functions.

Yale University Press, 9780300078671, 320pp.

Publication Date: April 10, 1999

About the Author

David F. Labaree, associate professor of education at Michigan State University, is also the author of The Making of an American High School.