Published online 26 August 2007.

Much of the criticism of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) has centered upon issues of implementation and of inequity: NCLB, it is said, is poorly funded, and punishes schools it should be helping.  But what if the practices demanded of schools by NCLB are simply the wrong schooling practices?  What if the high-stakes testing regime of NCLB demands teach-to-the-test practices that constitute inappropriate schooling?  Such a critique would connect the ritual performances of school life (under NCLB) with its (inappropriate) outcomes. This connection was notably made in Peter McLaren’s classic (1986) study of Catholic schooling, Schooling as a Ritual Performance.  In this review I shall look at McLaren’s theory as explained in this book, suggesting a way in which Schooling as a Ritual Performance could be used to mount a persuasive critique of “ritual performance” in the schools under NCLB.

Book review: McLaren, Peter.  Schooling as a
Ritual Performance (2nd. Ed.).  London and New York: Routledge, 1993.


In a recent issue of the magazine Radical Teacher, a book review of an anti-No-Child-Left-Behind screed (Many Children Left Behind: How The No Child Left Behind Act is Damaging our Children and our Schools, eds. Deborah Meier and George Wood) contained this criticism:

However, there is (in the book) no attempt to build on existing policy to improve rather than abandon a program to which so many have dedicated the last five years of their lives. (41)

Now, this is a rather curious criticism, coming from a magazine with a name like Radical Teacher.  It is indeed true that America’s teacher corps have been (to one extent or another) drafted into NCLB for “the last five years of their lives”; does this, however, mean that any effort at all should be made to “improve rather than abandon” NCLB?  The impact of NCLB could be minimized in some schools, or that teachers could find new ways of ignoring NCLB, but can it be improved?

This is not the place for me to say, definitively, “no, NCLB cannot be improved.”  And I certainly don’t wish to demean school labor, which must after all pursue a wage in the public school system.

But I don’t think that our criticism of NCLB, as political actors (and as participants in the public schools) should be limited to the standard gripe about how it is being poorly funded.  Nor do I think we are obliged to suggest that NCLB has “good points and bad points.”  Scott Franklin Abernathy, in No Child Left Behind and the Public Schools, suggests that “NCLB holds the promise of being one of the great liberal reforms in the history of US education” because

Desegregation and the Americans with Disabilities Act were both about equality of opportunity; No Child Left Behind aims to provide equality of outcomes.  This is a very radical and ambitious goal.  No longer content to provide access to education for traditionally excluded student populations, we are now demanding that these students receive equally good educations.  (3)

I don’t know if we should even begrudge No Child Left Behind this much.  To his credit, Abernathy continues by telling us, however, that “any confidence placed in No Child Left Behind is probably misplaced.”  Education in America today, if we are to believe Jonathan Kozol (The Shame of the Nation), is such a radically unequal experience that our systems are now preparing students for entry into different, radically unequal, social classes.  It doesn’t follow, however, that an “equally good education” is going to make children stuck in the lower classes “equal” with the sons and daughters of the well-to-do.

In sum, I don’t think that we, we who would criticize NCLB, are obliged to concede anything to NCLB, or to rescue it from itself in any way.  If we want to give everyone in the public schools a “good education,” we need to start (as Evans Clinchy does in Rescuing The Public Schools: What It Will Take To Leave No Child Behind) with models of good education, and not with macro-level concessions to the status quo.  But, even before that, we need to be able to say what good education is.

On the most “micro” level, we need moral measurements to determine whether teachers are doing things in the schools which accomplish any good, or if teachers are accomplishing lasting harm.

If we are to understand whether our school’s practices are in fact harmful (and to what extent this harm is due to intentional “school reform” policy), we will need to make some sort of moral measurement of them; also some sort of measurement of ritual performance in the schools that will allow us to look at school practices themselves and estimate their contribution to the future.  A tentative moral measurement of this sort can be read into Peter McLaren’s classic (1986) ethnography of schooling, Schooling as a Ritual Performance.



Peter McLaren’s Schooling as a Ritual Performance is an ethnographic study of the schooling process as observed by the author in a 7-8 grade Catholic school in a working-class neighborhood in Toronto, in Canada.  This was one of McLaren’s earliest works, originally published in 1986 (I am working with the second edition), and is an adaptation of McLaren’s Ph. D. dissertation.

As McLaren’s title suggests, the book is an attempt to bring anthropological method to the study of schools.  His first chapter, “Education as a cultural system,” introduces the anthropological construct of “ritual” as something that can be applied to schools.  Chapter 2 is about the school setting, “St Ryan,” in which the Catholic school of the study (and its mostly Italian and Portuguese immigrant clients) is discussed in detail. Chapter 3, “The Structure of Conformity,” and Chapter 4, “The Antistructure of Resistance,” discuss how life at “St Ryan” is performed as ritual.  Chapter 5, “Making Catholics,” imparts some sense of an outcome to the ritual processes of Catholic schooling that McLaren had observed.  Chapter 6 offers a “summary, recommendations, and reflections.”  Throughout Chapters 2 through 5 are scattered numerous first-hand ethnographic observations backing each of the author’s points.

What makes a reading of McLaren’s study uniquely useful to our reading of the No Child Left Behind Act is that, in studying this Catholic school, McLaren treats the students’ entire (mostly waking) lives as exercises in ritual performance.  The author suggests, in summarizing these experiences, that they can be separated out into four distinct ritual “states”: 1) the “streetcorner state” (86-90), in which students associate with each other and are co-creators of student culture, 2) the “student state” (9-92), in which students perform required tasks for teachers in classroom spaces, 3) the “sanctity state,” (92-93), in which students participate in prayer (remembering, of course, that this is indeed a Catholic school), and 4) the home state, in which students interact with household members.

In the book, McLaren suggests that such states “do not cleave neatly into analytic categories,” but they can be distinguished by observing who students are communicating with, and in what context.  McLaren’s distinctions form, in short, a basic communicative outline of the common student situation shared by those he’s observing.  Such a format, then, can be applied to gauge the communicative dynamic of any particular community.

For McLaren’s purposes, the dynamic which he observes from his (subjective) perspective as a fly-on-the-wall school ethnographer is that between the “streetcorner state,” that tribal, often ludic reality which the students create out of their association with school, and the “student state,” the state in which students are actually performing work at school.  All too often, our evaluation of schooling processes are merely about the “products” of the student state, which would perhaps include good grades, high test scores, finished projects or homework, or nicely-written papers.  Expressions of the “streetcorner state” within the classroom context are typically marginalized by adult authorities as expressions of “bad behavior.”  Adult understandings of schooling, then, are skewed to devalue a whole realm of student learning (i.e. peer interaction) which in many instances would otherwise count toward a meaningful global picture of what children are really learning.  Do we imagine that students stop learning when they are no longer doing homework or seated in classrooms performing classwork or listening to lectures?  Our school researchers ignore a global picture of student life at their own risk.

McLaren’s assessment of the ritual continuum of student life, moreover, does not merely stop with observation and classification.  We can see, in his last chapter before the “summary,” his observation of the process of “making Catholics” that Catholic schooling represents for him.  His warning about such schooling, though it extends into broadly political categories in the end, starts out with his foundational understanding of how the ritual process works for the students.  His summary:

From the perspective of the students, the rituals of the suite constituted degradation ceremonies that, in the end, involved an ultimate hoax.  Students baulked at satisfying themselves with metaphysical categories (such as heaven and purgatory) when they realized that all the metaphysics in the world wouldn’t feed their families or help their parents pay the rent.  Nor would the pain and suffering from enduring the boredom of schooling necessarily grant them decent jobs.  The pain of schooling was real; the manifest claim of the educational system to bridge the chasm of opportunity between the rich and the poor through a good education was more of an illusion.  Trapped between a concentrated onslaught of boredom and a dim hope for a better future, Portuguese students reacted much the same way as other working-class students: they dropped out.  (206)

So McLaren sees a sort of “distancing” of (lower-class, Catholic) student mentality from the process of the student state, in light of its “degradation” and “hoax” qualities.  The effect of this distancing is something he exaggerates as “dropping out”; it is nevertheless quite real.  This distancing of student mentalities is, significantly, an inversion of the adult attitude toward schooling, that the student state is really “all that matters” of each student’s participation in school.  It negates a schooling process which, McLaren calculates, would probably make no difference in student lives anyway.

McLaren’s book itself specifies a ritual “remedy” for this quality of schooling, in the persona of the “liminal servant.”  Here is his description of the “liminal servant”:

The liminal servant is both a convener of customs and a cultural provocateur, yet she (or he) transcends both roles. She does not subordinate the political rights of students to their utility as future members of the labor force. She is a social activist and spiritual director as much as she is a school pedagogue. The liminal servant, as the name suggests, is able to bring dimensions of liminality to the classroom setting where obligations that go with one’s social status and immediate role are held in abeyance.

The liminal servant does not shy away from the ambiguity and opacity of existence. She/he is androgynous, drawing upon both feminine and masculine modes of consciousness. Much depends upon her personal charisma and her powers of observation and diagnosis. She becomes aware of the strengths and weaknesses of her students by observing and diagnosing their ritual needs. The liminal servant views working class students as members of an oppressed group. Not only does she fight for the equality of her students outside the classroom, but she also attempts to educate her fellow teachers to the dangers of false consciousness. (McLaren, 1986, p. 115)

Now, taken all together, this portrait of the “liminal servant” is a portrait of a really good, radical teacher in the schools.  Isn’t this what we should have, if the purposes of the schools are to come together in a future that is to be better for everyone?

Peter now says that:

Today, I would ask that the liminal servant be part of the class struggle for an anti-capitalist, socialist, future. I would ask that he or she be part of an anti-imperialist, anti-racist, anti-sexist united front against neo-liberal polities and practice, especially those that affect education. The struggle for equality will only make us all equally exploited under capitalism, therefore the struggle must be to end exploitation by bringing down capitalism and struggling for a socialism for the 21st century.  (Personal correspondence, 7/26/07)

So, for Peter today, there is a more distinct ultimate goal to the activities of the “liminal servant.”  Moreover, one might also say that education is a more distinctly political activity now, especially given the realities of NCLB.

Of course, Schooling as a Ritual Performance is also an ethnography of a specifically lower-class, specifically Catholic school in Canada.  Its analysis isn’t intended to cover all instances of schooling.  What we want to take away from this book, however, is the sense that a “ritual performance” perspective upon school life can “sense out” its injustice.  Specifically, he shows how an observed continuum of school life will reveal the ways in which school brings students into a basically unjust social arrangement.

When I was in graduate school in the 1990s, getting a Ph. D. in communication, Schooling as a Ritual Performance was one of my favorite books, because it was indeed one of the few books that took a global, “ritual performance” perspective upon communication, and because Peter McLaren was one of the few ethnographers who, having charted the communicative lives of the young and having observed them growing up (or not) in an institutional situation, had the ganas to take a political stand on what he saw.

Today, Peter McLaren is a good friend of mine, and he tells me about Schooling as a Ritual Performance that:

I have moved from the hallowed anthropological halls of ritual studies, to the revolutionary Marxist shores of writing about Che Guevara (Che Guevara, Paulo Freire, and the Pedagogy of Revolution, Rowman and Littlefield) and speaking in Cuba in support of the Cuban and Bolivarian revolutions (and where I was recently interviewed for two hours on Cuban television) to working with supporters of Hugo Chavez (on the think tank Centro Internacional Miranda), where Nathalia and I serve in Caracas.  Nevertheless, my latest two books (Capitalists and Conquerors, Rowman and Littlefield) and Pedagogy and Praxis in the Age of Empire (with Nathalia Jaramillo, Sense Publishers) carry with them in their assault on US imperialism my earlier debt to rituals of resistance.  As an activist, I am now living such resistance in my work, resistance that I once only wrote about.

(Personal correspondence, 8/11/07)

(Peter, with Nathalia Jaramillo (left) and Aleida March Guevara (center).)

Indeed, there is in Schooling as a Ritual Performance a glimpse of solidarity with the oppressed that is spelled out so firmly in Peter McLaren’s later writings.  But for some reason we both “passed” on the opportunity to continue researching in this vein.  I’m beginning to think that, today, the challenge of No Child Left Behind might best be met by documenting the harm it does to particular schools through the methods of that earlier book.



The most basic “ritual question” about school should be one of how the various ritual performances of school (showing up, doing work, watching teachers, playing at recess, etc.) contribute to an overall continuum of student life, which itself points students in general life-directions.  What it counts on is the notion that we can observe ritual performances in school and scrutinize them for hints of “what school is for” for the students who are so engaged.  The effect of NCLB, across the board, is to further entrench high-stakes testing regimes in the rituals of schooling.  The tests themselves are not directly at fault, but they, and the “Adequate Yearly Progress” which must be reflected in them if teacher and administrators are to retain their careers, direct the rest of the schooling process so that the purpose of school itself becomes the tests.

There is plenty of suspicion directed at NCLB, though more of it could be documented in the “schooling as a ritual performance” ethnographic study typified by McLaren’s study.  There are, however, criticisms leveled at NCLB’s effect upon everyday school operations.  A dissertation-length study of “student well-being” (Hollingsworth, Claremont Graduate University, 2007) suggests that the regime of accountability promoted by (among other things) NCLB increases the general anxiety level of the teacher corps, which promotes student disengagement from the schooling process (133).  Another dissertation (Elwell, Claremont Graduate University, 2007) reveals that the enormous pressure to raise test scores creates an obsession with testing such that the tests themselves multiply, the teachers become deskilled, the curriculum narrows, the dropout rate increases, schools become more authoritarian, teacher morale declines, and errors in test-scoring become far more onerous in their implications for students, teachers, and schools.

The simplification of curriculum and proliferation of tests are well-documented in a recent study of schooling titled Tested (New York: Henry Holt, 2007), written by a prominent journalist (Linda Perlstein).  Indeed, we have a comprehensive 2000 longitudinal study of a high-stakes testing regime, that of the Houston public schools, in Linda McNeil’s excellent Contradictions of School Reform (New York: Routledge, 2000).  In McNeil’s study, the most celebrated teachers initially react of the imposition of a regime of high-stakes testing by creating two curricula: one curriculum for actually teaching the students the subject matter they have been assigned to teach, and another curriculum for helping students pass the high-stakes tests.  As McNeil narrates the lives of these celebrated teachers, however, many of them “burn out” at the prospect of having to teach two curricula all year, and are replaced by teachers who teach, that’s right, to the test.  The dumbing-down of curricula for purposes of “accountability” is moreover further documented in George Wood’s contribution to the anti-NCLB text Many Children Left Behind: How the No Child Left Behind Act is Damaging Our Children and Our Schools (Boston: Beacon, 2004).

Peter McLaren himself, along with Nathalia Jaramillo, has in their latest co-authored book offered a summary criticism of NCLB:

Our claim is that NCLB is a historical apparatus that serves to exert control over the largest and most vulnerable segments of the population in the interest of promoting capitalist consumption and the reproduction of the law of value and the value form of labor. (74)

This, it seems to me, is the summit at which criticism of NCLB, following the lines drawn out by McLaren himself in Schooling as a Ritual Performance, should attain with effort.  A “ritual performance” documentation of how NCLB operates on the ground level would be most useful to all who wish to understand how NCLB really works.

But, most effectively, such a study might (if written in a non-elitist, understandable prose) persuade the parents of public school students that the regime of high-stakes testing is not worth the easy convenience of test score reports for all the damage it does to schools and children.


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