Student Resistance Essay

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Student resistance to classroom instruction is often conceptualized as a student’s critical rejection of formal and impositional academic content knowledge. Yet student resistance in K–12 and higher education can be understood in much broader and more nuanced terms. If student resistance is viewed as the willful (be it active or passive) rejection of academic content, then one can begin with John Dewey’s comment in How We Think that teaching and learning are much like selling and buying: “One might as well say he has sold when no one has bought, as to say that he has taught when no one has learned” (p. 29).

Viewing student resistance through such a broad lens makes clear that this is a long-standing phenomenon cutting across categories of race, ethnicity, class, and gender. Although such resistance may be labeled as academic “failure,” it is just as possible to suggest that disengagement, withdrawal, and dropping out are legitimate modes of resisting schoolwork viewed as irrelevant to one’s future.

The rise of critical theory in the 1960s and 1970s offered an important addition to the understanding of student resistance. Specifically, critical theorists argued that student resistance was a response to the hegemonic attributes of schooling as a White, middleclass, and body-less institution. Students’ alienation from school was thus something done to students by external structures and norms as well as something done by students as an explicit rejection of such external structures and norms. Such an articulation highlighted the mismatch between the cultural capital of lower-class and non-White youth and the dominant cultural capital of the school. Student resistance was thus viewed as a liberatory disruption of the “total institution” of an educational system that emphasized order, control, and passivity; resistance becomes a strategic move of empowerment devoted to displaying other modes of agency, intelligence, and self.

While critical theorists focused their attention on K–12 schools, a similar movement developed in higher education as Whiteness studies and antioppressive education (among other multiculturalist movements) synthesized such work within a developmental framework. Student resistance was viewed as a lack of self-knowledge about crucial aspects of one’s privileged identity—be it in terms of race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, gender, sexual orientation, or (dis)ability. Where critical theorists viewed student resistance as a legitimate move of maintaining cultural identity in the face of hegemonic imposition, higher education scholars viewed such student resistance as the illegitimate maintenance of unexamined privileges in the face of a pedagogy of unmasking. It thus became important to move students in higher education through a developmental process of progressive stages: for example, from an unexamined identity to some form of identity crisis to a concluding reintegration stage.

Contrastingly, student resistance may also be viewed from an interactionist perspective of the coconstruction of classroom life and student identity. Student resistance is here viewed as a strategic move in response to a previous strategic move made by the teacher or other students, which in turn was made in response to other previous moves, ad infinitum. Student resistance is thus a tactical, albeit hesitant, identity positioning vis-à-vis a host of layered, complex, and intertwined social, cultural, and academic issues. A simple example of such positioning is the student who is fundamentally resistant in one class yet deeply engaged in another. Student resistance is thus a contextual rather than internal marker of identity.

Student resistance may ultimately be viewed as the “I don’t buy it” response to the selling of school knowledge. The rationale for and predominance of such a response will vary depending on the theoretical orientation and on the demographic characteristics of specific student populations. But student resistance will continue to be a prevalent feature of classroom life given the large percentages of nondominant youth still marginalized in K–16 education, the pervasive and unacknowledged Whiteness of the hidden curriculum of schooling, and the difficulty of linking classroom work to real-world relevance.


  1. Dewey, J. (1910). How we think. Boston: D.C. Heath. Freire, P. (1986). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Continuum.
  2. Giroux, H. A. (1983). Theory and resistance in education: A pedagogy for the opposition. South Hadley, MA: Bergin & Garvey.
  3. Hooks, B. (1994). Teaching to transgress: Education as the practice of freedom. New York: Routledge.

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