The Cutting Edge of Fun: Making Work Play at the New American School
This dissertation presents an ethnographic account of the launch of “The Downtown School for Design, Media, and Technology,” one of the most prominent American school reform projects in recent years. Drawing on popular accounts about children and young people’s pervasive affinity for digital media, and especially video games, the Downtown School’s progressive founders hoped to create a new model of schooling for the twenty-first century. By attempting to make the entire curriculum “game-like,” and by braiding digital media through pedagogic practices, the Downtown School’s founders hoped to make a model of schooling that was more “student-centered,” equitable, creative, engaging, fun, and technologically sophisticated than canonical models. In this dissertation I draw on my ethnographic documentation of the Downtown School’s first class – a group of 75 sixth graders coming of age in New York City – to show that despite the best intentions of its founders, the Downtown School’s techno-centric model mostly overlooked, rather than overcame, schooling’s contributions to the making and remaking of privilege. I argue that the school’s enthusiasm for digital media and games led educators to underestimate the power that students, the state, and privileged families would exert on the school to thwart the founders’ aims, as well as to play down the school’s embeddedness in a system that legitimated biased social selection. As a result, the school paradoxically helped remake many of the inequities its planners had hoped to ameliorate.