School and the "Production of Persons"
in a Community in Transition

Martin Packer
Department of Psychology
Duquesne University (412) 396-4852

Presented at the Symposium
"Cultural and Critical Perspectives on Human Development: Implications for Research, Theory, and Practice"

American Educational Research Association, San Francisco, April 1995

I'm going to talk this morning about the way the research I've been involved in has been influenced both by critical pedagogy and by cultural psychology. I've been trying to conduct research that is concrete, practical, and relevant; to leave the ivory tower and still make a contribution as a researcher and academic; and to also bring something back to the academy.

The work is a study of learning and development in context, where the context is that of a small community in the mid-west rust-belt whose identity and survival have been intimately tied to a massive industrial plant. The community grew up at the feet of a gigantic bomber factory, constructed during the second world war for the fordist production of B-24 bombers. The plant is big enough to fit a hundred football fields inside; at peak production one bomber rolled off the line every hour. Workers flooded to this plant from all over the country, and more followed after the war when the plant was retooled for automobile production. The result is an interesting mix of people who are still proud of their war effort and their work at the plant. The high school student handbook, 50 years later, has the bomber on its cover; the local football team is the Fliers.

But recently a large portion of the auto production was closed down, consolidated with a plant in the south. Suddenly the economic basis for the community -- well-paying jobs on the line that didn't require even a high school diploma -- was threatened. I started visiting the community schools shortly after the plant closing.

The community has only eight schools - an early childhood center, five elementaries, a middle school and a high school, with a student body of around 4,000. It's an urban fringe district, largely working class, about 40% African American, 60% Caucasian. Across the district 46% of students are on the free- or reduced-lunch program. It's a poor community, with many single-parent and broken families.

This project has been guided by work in both cultural psychology and critical pedagogy, in the former by the work of Jean Lave, and also Cole, Rogoff and others, and perhaps most strongly in the latter by Paul Willis' 'Learning to labor," though also by Aronowitz, Giroux, and others.

Cultural psychology is changing our understanding of human development by showing us how social and historical circumstances provide the artifacts, the mediational means, whose appropriation is a central aspect of development... and showing us that what 'counts' as development, as maturity, as adulthood, varies with time and place.

And critical pedagogy is also changing our understanding of development by showing how the development of the person is a crucial facet of the economic and political processes upon which society depends. The social order is not self-sustaining: its continued existence depends on the continual and appropriate actions of its members, and its continuity over time requires a continual supply of properly prepared newcomers.

Together, these considerations led me to wonder whether a community facing a threat to its existence such as the auto plant closing I've described would make efforts to sustain itself by changing what it considered maturity; by redefining the developmental process. If this were to happen, the schools would surely play a central role. And if such things were occurring they would provide an opportunity to study human development as a culturally and historically situated process; that is, as a process that includes not just children becoming adults, but also the reproduction and transformation, both, of the culture of a community, and the appropriation and relinquishment, both, of tradition and history. This is perhaps an over ambitious task, but I've also been continually fascinated by what I've seen in trying to accomplish it.

I found immediately that significant efforts were indeed underway in the community schools to change the practices of classroom instruction.

In order to both understand those changes and to try, in an appropriate way, to facilitate them, I've joined the committee that's trying to encourage "systemic change" across the district; I've attended the meetings of this committee, board meetings, Town hall meetings, traveled to the state department of education with other committee members; visited and observed in classrooms; interviewed teachers, students, parents, the superintendent and other administrators. I've focused my attention on transitions -- in and out of school; from one school to the next; the first day of the school year, and so on -- on the assumption that it is at times like these when norms and expectations become more explicit.


I've written ethnography based on these first-hand experiences, and recorded, transcribed and analyzed conversation and meetings. But I want today to discuss the work I've done not in terms of concrete findings, but as an illustration of issues of design and analysis in research on development in cultural and historical context.

Michael Cole, in his article in the first issue of Cultural Psychology (1995) explores the metaphor of culture as a garden; as a medium in which living things can be cultivated, can be encouraged to grow. My metaphor or interpretation has been a little different: I view culture as a site of work, a site of production.

It's hard to be in the industrial midwest and not employ manufacturing metaphors and similes to talk about the linkage between economic production, societal reproduction, and human learning and development. I've been going whole hog with the manufacturing metaphor, and I talk shamelessly about the "production of persons," and the role schools play in this production process. I do this in part because such talk resonates, albeit with much of the discussion about schooling today, both in the widespread debates about how best to prepare children for the workplace of the 21st century, and how to make schools more efficient and sensitive to the needs of their consumers. It also resonates with local views in the schools I've been visiting, where one elementary school is named after the engineer who designed the first automobile electric self-starter, and another after Henry Ford himself, where street names celebrate Desoto and Studebaker and Buick, and where Deming, promoter of Total Quality Management, is spoken of with affection and admiration. And of course, Marx's notion that it is in the production of artifacts, it is in labor, that human capacities are extended and human existence is defined, has been a notion at the origins of both cultural psychology and critical pedagogy.

At the same time, any simple production-line model of education is strongly contested by teachers in these schools, by the students' parents, and by the children themselves. So the phrase "production of persons" should be taken, in part, as intentionally ironic.

What does the process I'm calling "the production of persons" look like? Critical pedagogy has focused on the shaping of identity; cultural psychologists on the appropriation of artifacts. I think it is necessary to consider these two in relation. I talked on Tuesday in some detail about construction of identity; in a nutshell what I think goes on is that identity is forged in a space of possible positions that teacher and student construct together, everyday, in the classroom, as they engage with classroom artifacts. They construct a local reality, a cultural ground, that has to be understood if the larger patterns of reproduction and transformation are to make sense.

Identities are created in the school and classroom as answers to the question, who am I? Good student; bad student; smart; lazy; got a future; got an attitude -- in practical everyday terms, the logic here is not too complex but it's very powerful. To succeed in school, to want to succeed in school, a child has to find an identity that makes sense, that melds with the identity formed with family and peers.

But even when opportunities for this are created, some students will reject them, often with good reason: perhaps because they, or their parents, see school as irrelevant, or their home life has sapped them of energy and interest.

Stance of Researcher

And that leads me to my next point. It's one thing to study the cultural work in the classroom that defines a space for possible identities and so moves the production of persons along. It's another to see how this work fits into the larger political and economic structures of school, district and community (let alone state and nation). Attempting this kind of research has given me cause to reflect upon the peculiar tension between the inescapable embeddedness of the researcher, and the desire to grasp the process of development as a whole. I was very quickly aware of the narrow range and perspective of what i could study; the constant anxiety of being in the wrong place at the wrong time; the struggle to get a clear sense of the whole - whether it was the whole district and community, the whole school, or just the whole classroom on a particular day. What this led me to was an appreciation that the students and teachers I was trying to understand were in no different a position. They too had only a partial grasp of the whole in which they were involved, and yet they were doing fine, as active and effective agents - so that any account on my part that was dismissive of partiality would by that very token be inadequate.

Another way of thinking about this is in terms of the perennial issue of the relationship between structure and agency. We tend to see people either as passively acted on by social forces, or as free agents unconstrained by their social positions. How to get beyond this false dichotomy? - especially when as a psychologist I found I was ill-prepared to conduct an analysis of social institutions.

Schools have typically been analyzed as functional structures - but that kind of analysis misses the point, which is to question the functionality, or at least to view it as problematical and altered over historical time. But the alternative explored by Stephen Ball, among others (in his book "the micro-politics of the school"), a view which reduces everything to irrational contestation and struggle, is equally inadequate. What's needed is a grasp of the local rationality of an institution, and the relationship of this rationality to more global structures.


And this leads in turn to the broader issue of the place and the project of the researcher.

In his recent book, 'Critical pedagogy and predatory culture,' Peter McLaren reflects at one point on an area of weakness in critical pedagogy. He writes, "many current trends in critical pedagogy are embedded in the endemic weakness of a theoretical project overly concerned with developing a language of critique. Critical pedagogy is steeped in a posture of moral indignation toward the injustices reproduced in American public schools. Unfortunately, this one-sided emphasis on critique is matched by the lack of ethical and pragmatic discourse upon which to ground its own vision of society and schooling and to shape the direction of a critical praxis" (p. 32).

There are two senses of the word 'critique' or 'critical,' and they are often conflated. There's critique in the sense of unmasking systematic exploitation in society; and there's critique in the Kantian sense of identifying the conditions for the possibility of a phenomenon. The two became merged in Marx, because it was Marx's diagnosis that the systematic exploitation of workers was, is, one of the conditions for the possibility of a capitalist economy.

I think both these two -- unmasking exploitation, and identifying conditions of possibility -- are essential aspects of our research, but I want to pull them apart a little. Doing so creates room for dialogue again between critical pedagogy and cultural psychology: where researchers have been focusing on the creation of possibilities in human interaction. They have documented how, for example, parents both create possibilities and constrain the possibilities for children's interaction with cultural artifacts. And I'm in full agreement with Jaan Valsiner's view that one powerful aspect of cultural psychology is that it tends to avoid "the traditional classificatory schemes" that 'non-cultural' psychologists have used, because these "have eliminated the relevant phenomena (of development) at the very first step of data derivation" 1994, p. 37.), by failing to grasp the way human activity is open to different possibilities.

The creation of possibilities is something that I've come to see at all levels of this school district: I've been struck by the way, for instance, the "systemic initiative committee" has creatively appropriated the mandates coming 'down' from the state department of education to give its teachers some breathing space and room to maneuver. Contradictions and ambiguities are highlighted, to support the injunction that "we'll do it our way."

And at the microgenetic level, the district is standing behind instruction that is hands-on, project-based, self-paced, - instruction that can accurately be said, I think, to provide students with the opportunity, the possibility, to discover something; to 'get it,' as the teachers tell them.

This can be contrasted, within the district and often within the same school, with instruction that simply defines the 'job' that the students have to do, and prescribes the manner in which they are to do it. That's an approach that interprets learning -- or better, that interprets 'schooling' -- as having nothing to do with choice.

What I think I'm seeing in the district is an effort to employ schooling not to simply reproduce the local community, but to transform that community: by creating a space of possibilities, first for the students but then, indirectly, for parents and the community as a whole.

I must add that I want to write a positive account of this school district, because they've befriended me, because a purely negative critique would be dissing them, but also because I think a real optimism about what's happening there is appropriate. I see the efforts to open up fresh possibilities as efforts that are working. Of course there's no guarantee the openings won't close again, ungrasped, but I've come see part of the researcher's task as documenting possibilities being created, and encouraging reflection on them.

But what about the connections to the larger political and economic structure? Isn't the reproduction of capitalism inevitable, along with its enduring exploitation? That's a level of analysis that I feel rather unqualified to talk about, but certainly the economic times we live in are interesting. An article in the Harvard Business Review (Avishai,1994) recently suggested that for the first time, the interests of labor and capital coincide: both want more education for workers. Do I believe that? Not entirely - but I don't entirely disbelieve it either.

And, finally, it's been striking to me to start to see that below the level of discourse about preparing children for a changed workplace, a changing economy, of learning to learn and getting to college - below that economic level, runs a political level - and I say 'below' because I think the former is used to disguise the latter. Here the talk, though rarer, is about equal opportunity, of helping the underdog, of attending to the needs of the whole child.... Just before the last superintendent was hired, there was a move to integrate two elementary schools from ethnically distinct neighborhoods. There was great protest from the white parents, and the superintendent avoided that issue like a hot potato. What he did instead, though, was to win a millage election and provide the 'black' elementary with the first media center, the first computers in the classroom.... The election was not fought on equity issues, but equity concerns guided his actions.

The day after the auto plant closing was announced, about three years ago, the superintendent was quoted in the local newspaper, saying "We were getting encouraging news, so we were feeling good about it. It's very bad, very, very bad." A few weeks ago, in an interview with the local paper, the superintendent spoke in highly optimistic tones of the community becoming "freed" from its past. So it seems possible, for several reasons, to interpret the autoplant closing as providing an opportunity for the community to lighten the pressure of the iron hand of capitalism. They may be escaping from a relationship that was secure, but was also deadening. Perhaps that's a naive analysis on my part. And at best it's only a possibility - there are certainly no guarantees -- but as I've said, I see the researcher as having a responsibility to point out possibilities.

But, anyway, this is work in progress; the district has two more years of Systemic Initiative Support, and a new superintendent is being hired. It's too early to say for sure whether this is a positive or a negative story, a story of emancipation or of continued domination. In two more years I'll have a more complete story to tell.

Cole, M. (1995). Culture and cognitive development: From cross-cultural research to creating systems of cultural mediation. Culture and Psychology, 1(1), 25-54.
Avishai, B. (1994). What is business's social contract? Harvard Business Review (Jan-Feb 1994), 38-48.