Book Review: A Precarious Plenitude — “Digital Divisions: How Schools Create Inequality in the Tech Era”

By Justin Grosslight

In this beautifully written, shrewdly researched, and artfully argued book, Matthew Rafalow contends that how teachers understand and regulate their students’ digital know-how has profound consequences.

Digital Divisions: How Schools Create Inequality in the Tech Era by Matthew H. Rafalow. The University of Chicago Press, 224 pages, $22.50.

Digital access has become nearly ubiquitous for adolescents across America’s class and race spectra. And that raises the question: does such digital availability create a world with more equable opportunities? Sociologist and Google scholar Matthew H. Rafalow insists that the answer is a definitive no. In his ethnographic account of three proximate Southern California middle schools — each well-equipped with computers and proffering a different racial makeup — Rafalow contends that how teachers understand and regulate their students’ digital know-how has profound consequences. Drawing on sophisticated theoretical analysis, he argues that the digital skills students pick up outside the classroom are treated differently, divided along class and racial fault lines, with whiter and more moneyed students benefiting the most. In sum, “[d]isciplining play is how schools reproduce inequality in the twenty-first century.”

Rafalow’s investigation reveals that most of the teachers he looked at adopted a “triple mythos” regarding digital learning. They believed that integrating technology is always positive, that it breeds positive academic outcomes, and that it prepares students for 21st-century jobs. Yet how they acted on these can-do attitudes varied across schools. At the predominantly Asian middle-class Sheldon Junior High, teachers viewed digital play as threatening. Video games and online collaboration were restricted because educators thought Asian students were inclined to become aggressive hackers. Pupils were told they are only as good as they could perform on tests. Instructors at the chiefly Latinx working-class César Chávez Middle School acknowledged digital games and blogs, but consigned that kind of play to academic irrelevance. Viewing their students as children of struggling immigrant parents, faculty members saw their role as teaching skills useful for word processing and online research, knowledge that would help their students succeed in a 21st-century “factory.” At the upscale, private, and largely white Heathcliff Academy, instructors drew on children’s online gaming and blogs for their lessons, helping them to shape an active online presence. Access, in which students shared their personal interests in educationally enriching ways online, was welcomed. Parents were frequently engaged on the Web as well. Through these routines, “schools organize the sandboxes within which ideas get circulated, elevated, or shot down.”

How then does race factor into teaching attitudes? Rafalow observed that some of the study’s white, middle-class teachers that he interviewed embraced different Asian and Latinx stereotypes in different learning contexts. He contends that faculty members adopted racial stereotypes based on the school’s recent history and its organizational culture. At Chávez, staff identified Latinx students as “benevolent immigrants” striving for success. Many Chávez faculty members had migrated to the school together with its principal, who had instilled a sense of togetherness at their previous venue. An influx of middle-class Asian families clamoring for success pushed Sheldon’s teachers to adopt an “every-man-for-himself” attitude as they increasingly viewed its Asian majority as “cutthroat hackers” and Latinx minority as “future gang members.” Heathcliff’s achievement mindset led teachers to see their few Asian students as “model minorities.” Whiteness, however, was “invisible.” White students throughout were seen not as a race by faculty, but as unique individuals. Racial pigeonholing, Rafalow concludes, can be seen as “heterogeneous and located in particular social environments.”

Assessing student experiences, Rafalow investigates what types of online play were encouraged at school and why. Unfortunately for students at Sheldon and Chávez, digital use outside of the classroom was not seen as being valuable. Sheldon pupils feared disciplinary action if they were caught playing online both inside and outside of school; these students learned to “ghost” their Web activity in class. Chávez students, unlike their counterparts at Sheldon, used digital tools to produce material as well as to consume it. But in school, online tools were appreciated primarily for their labor value — sharing what was done on the Web beyond curricular goals was deemed irrelevant. In contrast to their peers, Heathcliff students not only integrated online games and blogs into their lessons but learned to digitally showcase their personalized, creative interests in ways that would attract college admissions officers. Digital play at Heathcliff, therefore, was not only crucial for learning, but was viewed as an essential marketing tool to enhance cultural capital.

Digital Divisions makes many contributions to sociology and media studies scholarship. By asserting that adolescents acquire basic tech skills from their peers, Rafalow turns Pierre Bourdieu’s accepted model of social fields on its head: affluent parents are no longer seen as instrumental in instilling mores and behaviors into their children (e.g., a child’s “habitus”) that will support academic and financial success. Rafalow then goes on to explore how teachers use institutional forms of control to generate certain outcomes — converting kids’ digital skills in directions that will lead to conventional achievement. To his credit, Rafalow eschews technological determinism, the notion that technologies inherently dictate how people are going to use them. By so doing, he boldly builds upon research in youth digital learning — most notably work of Eszter Hargittai and Danah Boyd — by examining how technological skills are imparted to teens through the “discipline” of play. Middle schools provide welcome sites of analysis, as earlier sociological studies in education largely had explored primary and high school milieux.

A key influence underpinning the book’s argument is Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis’s classic 1976 text Schooling in Capitalist America: Educational Reform and the Contradictions of Economic Life. With neo-Marxist flair, Bowles and Gintis articulate a class-driven correspondence principle: the norms and values that schools pass on to students correspond to similar norms and values they will later experience in the workplace. In this view, academic expectations are often conditioned through a hidden curriculum: pedagogical material is taught in ways that reinforce the school’s dominant class culture. Building empirically upon these concepts with respect to digital skills learned outside the classroom, Rafalow grafts race onto class in his application of Bowles and Gintis’s perspective.

For me, this is where Digital Divisions’ problems begin. It is easy to conflate race and class when the schools in one’s study do so. At least Rafalow acknowledges this point, noting that it “would have been ideal to compare three schools where race and class were not confounded.” He admits that it is “atypical” to find schools where this doesn’t happen (for example, one could choose for comparison an affluent Asian majority middle school in Cupertino, CA). Data within the study suggest that class trumps race in terms of how school faculties view online play skills. For instance, the minority of white students at Sheldon and Chávez — representing 15 percent and 5 percent of their respective student bodies — were subject to the same classroom objectives as their nonwhite peers. Curiously, Rafalow did not consult a single white student at these schools, despite claiming to have interviewed a “randomly selected half of the students” in an “‘ideal type’ eighth-grade classroom” at each venue. Moreover, though Asian students at Heathcliff were profiled by faculty as a “model minority,” the stereotyping did not stop the students from aiming for achievement. And what about the study’s unmentioned Black students? If Rafalow really wanted to tease out whether race was a key indicator affecting the treatment of digital skills, he could have found a way to compare his schools to others across the socioeconomic spectrum, including drawing on some with fixed racial majorities, even if that meant looking beyond Southern California.

The author’s blithe technological optimism is also troublesome. He sees digital play as an equalizer, a force that could potentially mitigate the cultural advantages that wealthier parents bestow upon their children. Youth teach each other rudimentary digital skills — parents are not part of the learning process. But don’t the inevitable drawbacks of “unequal childhood” pertain even here? Children from various classes may approach digital technologies differently, through disparate vocabularies and values acquired at home. Also, Rafalow’s stance toward Heathcliff is agonizingly uncritical; this is an environment where teachers maximize achievement by encouraging digital play skills. Computers can be used to augment textbook learning methods, but I am not convinced they can supplant them. This is especially the case regarding mathematics and the sciences, where rote exercises remain crucial for developing problem-solving skills. Even for Salman Khan — founder of the online educational nonprofit Khan Academy, who is adored by the staff at all three schools — mastery and drill remain the bedrock of success. Though curating one’s online presence is obviously a critical skill in this century, is it really healthy to have middle school students thinking about college admissions? The nightmare product of this emphasis on online projection is obvious (and already reportedly a reality): a wealthy but academically mediocre student conjures up a sexy Web presence that seduces college admissions officers. Whatever happened to good old academic merit?

Beautifully written, shrewdly researched, and artfully argued, Rafalow’s book tries to convince us that educators’ approach to digital play is shaped along race and class lines. As a believer in merit, I am only partially convinced that “Marxist perspectives hold a lot of truth for the realities of schooling.” Still, teachers must become more cognizant of the pernicious effects of racial and economic stereotypes on their pedagogy. Despite my disagreements, I accept some of the author’s pragmatic suggestions: that tools for educational technologies should be designed with instructor use in mind and that it is vital that teachers serve as consultants for digital education products. Taken holistically, Digital Divisions is a provocative work. Though more theoretical than practical in focus, anyone interested in sociology, education, or media studies will find ample food for thought in this book.

Justin Grosslight is an intellectual interested in examining the connections between technology, society, and business. He has published academic articles in mathematics and history of science, book reviews on a wide range of topics, and several vocabulary development and test preparation books. Along with extensive travel, Justin enjoys entrepreneurial pursuits and provides personalized education counseling to students in America and Southeast Asia.

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