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How an Anthropocentric Culture Shapes American Teachers

And an exploration of how teachers are made to conceptualize and sort high and low-ability students.

by Vanessa Lancaster

Are teachers born or made? As an educational psychologist, this question begs to address the whole nature vs. nurture debate. As Shulman (1987) stated, “Teaching is a learned profession” (p. 9). Although Shulman discussed teachers developing knowledge bases through various formal education systems, teachers are also shaped through informal education within American culture. Therefore, this post explores the side of nurture and how an anthropocentric culture makes American teachers. Additionally, I examine how teachers are made to conceptualize and sort high and low-ability students.

American schools and teachers often reproduce “racism, sexism, and economic inequalities” (Lowenstein et al., 2010, p. 101). It is essential to recognize that teachers do not intentionally reproduce these profoundly ingrained values and implicit biases. These forms of domination and exploitation of groups of people are acceptable and necessary to keep America’s neoliberal society afloat. Teachers learn the purpose of school is to sort and track particular groups of students, ensuring they become laborers in a market that cares not for building community but for creating competitive human capital. From where do such beliefs stem?

First, the knowledge most valued in America is that which can contribute to the growth of economic markets. IQ testing derived by Stanford-Binet, published in 1910, became widely used in public schools to help “determine the future potential” of students while sorting them by “ability and future occupational destination” (Spring, 1988, p. 38). Terman (1919) looked at student differences based on IQ testing. Students with lower IQs struggled to complete education past the 8th grade, although Terman found they could contribute to the labor force as skilled workers. Of considerable concern to Terman was that high academic ability individuals were present in juvenile delinquent, prison, and unemployed populations, which he felt was a waste of ability the nation’s workforce could utilize.

Students with high IQs were deemed gifted or high ability. It is important to note that the myriad definitions for the term gifted change over time, often in response to the priorities of those wishing to appropriate the term. It has been operationalized to dominate particular groups of students to use specific academic abilities to benefit the market in higher-status jobs. 

The hierarchized dualism of the terms high/low ability is exemplified in the use of language and metaphors. Language and metaphors are used to interpret and “act upon the world” (Lowenstein et al., 2010). As urban students in under-resourced schools are often considered to be of low ability, the language used “forms a basis for how society creates cultural meaning” (Martusewicz et al., 2021, p. 56) of such schools. The students deemed low ability are also dominated, shaped to believe their place is to work in lower-status jobs that pay lower wages.

The social belief that students in urban schools are disadvantaged or low ability shapes implicit biases and analogies. Martusewicz et al. (2021) stated that “taken-for-granted analogies…become iconic…they take on the status of truth that is difficult to challenge because…most people in a culture accept it as a given” (p. 65). The analogy that students in under-resourced urban systems are disadvantaged and low ability has been so ingrained in society that it is taken for granted by teachers, administrators, and policymakers.

There is a taken-for-granted belief that those considered disadvantaged or low ability do not have knowledge valued by society. Those deemed to be high ability are typically thought only to have useful knowledge (i.e., math, reading, science) pertaining to society’s goals, which are most often to benefit the global market or the development of weapons for war. Ambrose (2013) argued that an emphasis on students with high abilities in technical, professional, and mathematic skills creates adults who “unwittingly contribute to the growth of inequality in a globalized economy (i.e., gifted financial wizards on Wall Street with powerful mathematical abilities rooted in market fundamentalism that sent the world in a tailspin)” (p. 87).

Developing quality teachers who squelch the reproduction of such values starts with reforming teachers’ formal education and reflective professional development. This process is necessary to replace those teachers who maintain dangerous assumptions with those who foster ideas of democracy, community, support, and equality.

To make a quality teacher, teachers must receive an equal opportunity for formal education, a liberating education. Liberating education consists of “acts of cognition, not transferrals of information” (Freire, 1968, p.67). Rather than exploiting those considered high or low ability for the benefit of the market, dialogue, and problem-posing that facilitates divergent thinking must be implemented. Mutual authority of arguments between teacher and student is crucial to the “humanist praxis” required to facilitate education as a “practice of freedom” (Freire, 1968, p. 74). As modern American society exemplifies the ideology of individualism and a logic of domination, the future can only be changed by a refutation of a society where we must compete with those around us. 

Rather than focusing on sorting students in urban and suburban schools as having high or low ability to benefit the market, formal and informal education must work to expose how mainstream thinking leads to domination against groups of people while simultaneously endeavoring to embrace community and democracy. Only then will teachers be made who can stop the reproduction of dangerous taken-for-granted ideologies and implicit biases.


Ambrose, D. (2013). Socioeconomic inequality and giftedness: Suppression and distortion of high-ability. Roeper Review, 35, 81-92.  

Freire, P. (1968). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Continuum.

Lowenstein, E., Martusewicz, R., & Voelker, L. (2010). Developing teachers’ capacity for ecojustice education and community-based learning. Teacher Education Quarterly, 37(4), 99-118. 

Martusewicz, R. A., Edmundson, J., & Lupinacci, J. (2021). Ecojustice education toward diverse, democratic, and Sustainable Communities. Routledge. 

Shulman, L. (1987). Knowledge and teaching: Foundations of the new reform. Harvard Educational Review, 57(1), 1-21.

Spring, J. (1988). The sorting machine revisited: National education policy since 1945. New York: Longman. 

Terman, L. (1919). The intelligence of school children: How children differ in ability the use of mental tests in school grading and the proper education of exceptional children. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. 

Photo by Alexas_Fotos from Pixabay

October 6, 2021

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