In a new book, I Love Learning; I Hate School: An Anthropology of College (Cornell University Press, 2016), Faculty Fellow Susan D. Blum explores a conundrum: why students who love to learn may still find their educational experiences difficult and unsatisfying.

“Many of our students love learning and learn constantly and joyfully, because humans are born to learn. But the formal schooling that has been imposed on almost all young people until well into adulthood—now, that is a much tougher fit,” she explains. 

In her research, conversations, and classroom observation, the anthropologist discovered troubling discrepancies between the goals of universities and the needs of college students.

At the core, Blum identified a mismatch between learning, “which students may love,” and schooling, “which many students hate.”

Drawing on anthropological research into human nature, development, and motivation, she demonstrates the multimodal ways that humans acquire new information and explains why practices common in schools—age segregation, decontextualized learning, an emphasis on grades, and the production of failure—diminish student interest and engagement.

“The more we take ‘learning’ out of context and put it, cleanly and abstractly, into an institutional framework and ask students to perform in isolation, the less possible it is to learn,” she says.

Her analysis of the myriad forms of learning provides a convincing explanation for why students are often more engaged in extracurricular activities than they are in their academic work.

Calling for a “reintegration of learning with life,” Blum offers suggestions for how to combat this mismatch by making classrooms more engaging.

“The bottom line is this: the more learning in school resembles the successful learning that is so abundant outside school, the greater the chance that learning will take place,” she says.

With other scholars and practitioners, she discussed some of the issues explored in this work at the conference “Learning In and Out of School: Education across the Globe,” which she organized at the Kellogg Institute in 2012.

Blum has published several books and articles on the subject of student learning, including the acclaimed My Word! Plagiarism and College Culture (Cornell University Press, 2009), which demonstrates why students might pursue good grades “by any means necessary.” She has also conducted extensive research on China.

From the reviews

“Blum courageously achieves the goal of anthropologists who work in their own culture: she makes the familiar strange. She does so by painting a vivid portrait of learning in today's universities, a portrait that those of us who love university teaching know but are reluctant to admit—the system too often fails even our most capable students. Blum leads the reader on an intimate, often uncomfortable, journey, a journey that everyone associated with higher education should take.”

—Christine Finnan, College of Charleston