In this essay, Jennifer Light examines the ideal versus the reality of the “unproductive student,” the young person who puts off work in favor of schooling to develop their human capital for later workforce participation. The economic status of student activities has been the source of recent controversy with college athletes and graduate teaching assistants seeking greater recognition for the value they generate in terms of revenues and cost savings, while educational institutions push back against claims that students are employees. Missing from these discussions is the recognition that students have routinely made economic contributions to American schools while educators have located the significance of these contributions in their educational rather than financial value. Here, Light traces the history of students' everyday participation in the construction and maintenance of public schools. With insights from economic sociology, she shows how students came to be seen as noneconomic actors despite ample evidence about their economic activities. Her essay argues for an alternative economic history of public schools, points to new directions for research in educational history and educational economics, and calls into question one of the defining assumptions about students for the past one hundred years.

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