Sociologist at London School of Economics

Research

The Burden of Acting Wise

The Burden of Acting Wise: Sanctioned School Success and Ambivalence about Hard Work at an Elite School in the Netherlands
Forthcoming in Intercultural Education 27(2) (with Bowen Paulle)

Sam despises ‘nerds.’ Most of his classmates share his worldview: they say working hard in school makes a student unpopular, and that they purposefully do only the minimum to pass. A great deal of research suggests that such ‘oppositional’ attitudes are especially prevalent among students classified either as lower class, as ethnoracial minorities, or both. Like most of his classmates, however, Sam is white, hails from an extremely privileged background, and has been placed on an elite track within the Dutch system of secondary education.

While deeply ambivalent about working hard and ‘acting wise,’ Sam and the others constituting his ‘adolescent society’ are thoroughly caught up in peer dynamics which cut them off from the world of learning, and which promote the cultivation of mediocrity, if not failure. These anti-school peer dynamics are linked to the particular institutional configuration of education in the Netherlands, characterized by a combination of tracking at the end of primary school and non-selective universities. That is, state structures and policies contribute to these privileged students’ rationale for ‘taking it easy’ and doing poorly in school.

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