December 1, 2000


Why Schools Aren't Winning Hearts and Minds

By Robert W. Fuller

Polls show that education is the public's top priority. Both political parties have ambitious plans for school reform.

But while there is a growing consensus that something must be done, there is little agreement about what.

There are good reasons for this uncertainty. Educational reforms rarely live up to their promise. Deep down we sense that none of the current proposals reaches to the nub of the matter. Before we embark on another round of reform we should figure out why so many students withhold their hearts and minds from learning.

There is a reason that so many students who begin school with hope and enthusiasm wind up turning off or dropping out.

The poison sapping their strength needs a name. Because it resembles racism and sexism, I call it "rankism." Rankism is abuse or discrimination based on differences of rank. It pervades all educational institutions from kindergarten through graduate school.

Rankism is discrimination based on a difference of power. A teacher denigrating a student, an "in-group" of students shunning other students, a professor exploiting a teaching assistant — all are instances of rankism.

Once you have a name for it, you see rankism in the workplace, in civic institutions, in health care, even in families. Finding and holding one's position in a hierarchy takes priority over all else.

For students, this means that before they can focus on their texts, they must master the subtext that governs their rank within the school. Whether we give ourselves to the educational enterprise or withhold ourselves from it, depends on where we stand in the school hierarchy.

There is nothing inherently wrong with rank if precisely defined and not abused. But, in practice, once rank order is established it's hard to change. High rank confers advantages on those who acquire it and these advantages compound. Low rank carries a stigma and makes you vulnerable to indignities by teachers and fellow students.

It's rankism that creates the spurious divide between winners from losers at an early age and extinguishes ambition in many kids before they reach third grade.

The situation encountered by the low-ranking is functionally equivalent to that faced by blacks under Jim Crow. Today it is not so much race prejudice as the misuse of rank that functions to keep students, white or black, from committing themselves to education.

In disallowing rank-based discrimination we must be careful to distinguish it from rank itself. After all, it is a legitimate function of education to help us determine a vocation commensurate with our abilities.

It can't be said clearly enough that there is nothing inherently abusive or discriminatory about rank.

Individuals' talents, abilities, and skills vary markedly. In a true meritocracy, rank would be precisely defined, and rewards would reflect current rank within a large and growing number of narrowly defined niches.

Composite, overall rankings that ignore variations from specialty to specialty are spurious. We don't declare the winner of the mile the best runner because that's unfair to sprinters and marathoners. Merit has no significance beyond the precise realm wherein it is assessed. IQ measures not "intelligence," but performance on a particular test. Similarly, ranking schools by their students' average test scores is a measure of how students average on those tests, not school merit.

No human being is expendable. Everyone has something to contribute. Helping individuals find that something and contribute it is the proper business of education.

Discrimination occurs whenever race, or gender, or rank serves as an excuse for insults or prejudice. We have become alert to the negative consequences of racism and sexism, but we are still largely oblivious to the costs exacted by rankism.

The reason that schools fail to fully enlist students in learning can be traced to the prevalence of this undiagnosed malady. Both students and teachers suffer the ill effects. Students find themselves resisting and rebelling, not learning; teachers find themselves hectoring and disciplining, not mentoring.

Hearts steeled against the indignities and inequities of rankism shut minds to learning. As Vartan Gregorian says, "Dignity is non-negotiable." If the dignity of either students or teachers is liable to insult, educational reforms will fail to engage hearts and minds.

Robert Fuller taught physics at Columbia University, created a program for high-school dropouts in Seattle, and was president of Berlin College. His book "Breaking Ranks: In Pursuit of Individual Dignity," can be accessed at

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