AN ANTHROPOLOGIST LOOKS
The American Museum of National History
Educational methods 21: 219-223, 1942.
In every human society of which we have ally record, there are those who teach and those who learn, for learning a way of life is implicit in all human culture as we know it. But the separation of the teacher's role from the role of all adults who inducted the young into the habitual behavior of the group, was a comparatively late invention. Furthermore, when we do find explicit and defined teaching, in primitive societies we find it tied in with a sense of the rareness or the precariousness of some human tradition. This is so whether the task of the teacher be to impart his special charms for making the yams grow, or teach the young apprentice :he arts of house building which are no longer the common knowledge of all men, or teach to each generation the genealogies and sacred names of the ancestors, or whether the emphasis is not oil special knowledge at all but merely upon the slender thread on which all knowledge hangs. So among the Arapesh of New Guinea, a young man sought a teacher to tell him what to do when his first child was born, or after killing a man, or after marrying a widow, and he sought as a teacher, someone who had done the same thin; successfully before, one who "knew how to have children." There was no anticipatory teaching, a man waited until an emergency stared him in the face, and then sought one whose experience would help him, a novice, successfully to surmount the difficulty. Among, these people there was perpetual fear that some day an emergency would come and there would be "no one who had done it before" who could transmit the necessary routines to the one now in need of that knowledge. Perhaps the most dramatic case of the teacher's connection with the existing body of tradition was in the Maori Whare Wananga, in which it was said that a student, when he graduated, was required to stand up and try to kill his teacher with the spells that teacher had taught him. We have, however, no authenticated instances in which the pupil succeeded.
But throughout the primitive and ancient world, the teacher was conceived as the custodian of the precious past, its lore and its skills, and it was his duty to pass this knowledge .on to those who wished to learn. The initiative was left, however, in almost all cases, to those who wished to learn, who went in search of those who knew and were able to teach. As long as this condition prevailed, there was no thought of methods of teaching, but only of methods of learning, had the student the fee, the time, the skill or the memory to learn that which lie could persuade someone to teach him.
A first great shift in the role of the teacher came with the invention of the school and the implicit assumption that through the school the number of persons who shared any skill could be enormously extended. As long as the teaching-learning relationship was between one teacher and one pupil, or even one teacher and three or four-if he happened to be specially skilled or famed -the whole emphasis was upon passing on tradition, in single threads, from one human being to another. With the school and its basic premise, many more students than teachers, this relationship was upset and the school became an instrument, not merely to perpetuate the past, but to alter the proportionate relationships between those who knew and those who did not know how to write, or calculate or read Latin. This shift made the teacher the ally of a child's future in a different way than he had been in the past. The teacher no longer merely supplemented the parent, teaching the child a particular set of charms or a particular fishing method, but he opened the way for the child to go where his parents had never been, into a different stratum of society. The teacher became the instrument of social mobility, an important role in societies where social mobility was highly valued.
But at the moment when the teacher--teaching in the school--became the ally of the child's future, in the sense that that future was different from that child's present-as represented by the knowledge and class position of his parents-the teacher was placed vis-a-vis those parents, no longer their surrogate, no longer merely cooperating with them in perpetuating a shared past. For if the teacher was to teach the child-in school--skills beyond those of his parents, then the teacher must know more than the parents of those skills which he taught, perhaps also of many others. The way was opened for a possible conflict between teacher and parent-a conflict which is mitigated but not prevented the desire of the parents that,, their use the school as a means of vertical mobility.
Meanwhile, with the discovery of America, with missionary movements all over the world and rapid culture con tact between western civilization and alien and different cultures, the school became also an instrument not only for changing the proportions of those who did and those who did not share a given skill, but actually an instrument for separating children-Indian children, African children, or European children from one culture and under the power of another-from the language and traditions of their parents. Perhaps nowhere else has this function of the school gone further than in America, and perhaps nowhere else is the member of the school board who insists that the three ft's were good enough for him and they are good enough for his children, so ubiquitous. As we were busy developing an instrument not only for social mobility but for very rapid diversion of children from the culture of their parents, we have developed a symbolism which has obscured this revolutionary role of the school as thoroughly as possible. Where European states merely regiment their teaching force, make it subservient to the state, and use their teachers to extend the particular power ideologies of the moment, and where the whole question of academic freedom for a teacher is more or less nonsense, in America we have see-sawed back and forth between a tremendous fear that our teachers will be subversive, and an unwillingness to permit our schools to be used systematically in the service of any ideology, even our own. The lack of insistence on Christian teaching in the schools of an outspokenly Christian country is a conspicuous instance of our symbolic unwillingness to indoctrinate; the passionate fears of the effects of one Communist among thousands of teachers is a symbol of the other. Schools in America, because of the phenomenon of immigration, schools in Europe because of conquest and cultural domination, have become instruments for weaning children away from' the traditions of their parents.
If the teacher faces this position, over against the parent, quite frankly, it may make it easier to understand the tremendous emotion with which every act of a teacher-whether she takes a drink, or smokes a cigarette, or wears lip stick, reads the children free verse, votes the farm labor ticket or mentions Marx-has for the average community. The teacher is leading the children into what is a No Man's Land as far as the parents are concerned. However much they may accept the dictates of social ambition and expect the school to make it possible for their students to rise, the fact remains that the teacher is leading the children-their children-into a strange world where they can never follow, that the teacher is-in a sense -a Pied Piper of Hamlin. And because our morality is rooted in the past, in our introjected images of parental ideals, deviations on the part of the teacher, to whom the child is being entrusted, arouse terrible anxiety in the parents. Are the children not only to be led into a strange world, but led there by someone who is morally irresponsible? At the same time the parents can secretly hope to get their own back, their ignorance may be rated higher than that teacher's knowledge, if it can only be proved that the teacher is wicked, while they are good.
In such a highly charged situation, there are two roads open to the teacher. The teacher can seek to increase her ties of solidarity with the parents, sharing in their community life, continually interpreting to them and making available to them some understanding of the strange mysteries into which she is initiating their children. Or the teacher may press for more and more powerful and remote sanctions to be placed behind, her teaching, for a Federal school system which can afford to ignore local prejudices and insist upon a Federal version of the truth instead of the version current in Oshkosh or Seattle or Tampico. Probably very few teachers put the question to themselves in this way; they tbink of academic freedom or of higher standards, of freedom from the ignorance of local school boards, of better materials and better text books. But behind the whole issue of whether our school systems should be more and more run from the top, first by states and ultimately federalized, lurks this problem: how close or how distant are to be the ties between the teacher and the parents of those whom she teaches?
So in two senses the teacher faces a complicated dilemma today. The upsurge of patriotism which comes with War, will reactivate the demand that she teach the past, the glories of the past, and leave out not one single ringing "Give me Liberty or give me death." Meanwhile the exigencies of modern warfare demand imperatively that she should teach the future, prepare students with sufficient flexibility and origin--to solve the myriad new problems of the rapidly changing world. Already we are faced by the fact that we have plenty of students trained in the routines of science but pitifully few who have been taught to tackle scientific problems for themselves. The question is being flung back to educators, to the very educators who have been so solemnly exhorted to teach the past: "Why can't you develop students with more originality, with more capacity for real scientific thought?" And concomitantly with this challenge, comes an intensification of the problem of community relationships. Will teachers, in schools, during the War, work hard to increase their community ties, or will they take the easier course and seek to invoke super-sanctions?
To state a dilemma squarely, however, is at least partially to solve it. Teachers cannot-if they would-give up their role as the official instruments of change. Nor can they, however much they would, completely assuage the anxiety which this role arouses in the hearts of the parents who are forced to entrust their children to them. But there is the possibility that they may be able to develop al new phrasing for their role in our society which will resolve some of these conflicts. .
In wartime, peoples become increasingly conscious of time, both the time that has gone before and the future that is before them. Past and future become merged-not only semantically, as in the phrasing which I have just used-but in a deeper sense because of the tremendous emotion attached to the present moment in which many members of the society tire dying, because their forefatherslived, that their descendants may live. At such a time it becomes more possible to endow the future with the symbols of the past without at the same time::' cramping and constricting it with any mean formula of "What was good enough for my father is good enough.'' for my child." The past can be stated
as dynamic and so bound to the future, and the teacher can be cast in a double role, custodian of the phrases of liberty and struggle and undying courage which have been bequeathed to us, and custodian of the skills with which those phrases must be implemented in the future. . 'The circular statement can be made that in our schools we are preparing our children to go-in the future further oil the same road that our fore fathers traveled in the past., but using new vehicles-substituting the airplane for the covered wagon, teaching the physics needed for building airplanes rather than merely the mechanics needed in the construction of the covered wagon, developing the social and political ideas appropriate for a world where communication which was once a matter of months is now a matter of hours. The continual need for skills in the young which the old have never mastered will dramatize this phrasing, and dramatize it in terms of safety and security for the very values for which the parent care most. Unless we can produce the mechanics, the draftsmen, the designers, the engineers, the pilots, he skilled submarine crews necessary--then danger to all the life which is symbolized by the Past, creeps closer. At such a time, it should not be difficult to shift the symbols of safety to include the future.
The Plains Indians, when the buffalo was disappearing, were faced by a dislocation in their way of life, by a rift between children and parents far greater than any we are asked to face. The old interpreter on an Indian reservation once explained to us how it was that his English was so perfect, that he was so well equipped to make his way in a world where white men's customs ruled. "We went hunting that year, but there were no buffalo. Finally, starving, the tribe ended up in Texas, and the U. S. government had to send us back up home. Then my father said: `It is finished, the old way is gone:' end he sent me to school." This was said in sadness but a different note was struck by an old maxi who was a leader in the Peyote cult, depending upon eating the drug for his visions of the spiritual world. "Brit my children will not need to take Peyote," lie said, "for they will know how to read."
Every great and sweeping upheaval in the world gives us a chance to recast our institutionalized roles, to divest them of cumbersome and worthless symbolism, to invest them with new meanings. The teacher has been leading children into the future for over a century, but she has done it against the misgivings and precautionary rituals of her pupils' parents. Now history has provided a setting in which this role may be seen as a saving one. If the schools will seize this opportunity to use symbols of past and future together and at the same time strengthen their horizontal ties with their local communities, not ask for outside sanctions to make them sacerdotal high priests of a distant Federal power, they may so alter the status of the teacher in America, and turn her, from one who is always likely to betray the past, unless she is sharply watched, to one who holds the future--not only their children's future, but theirs also---n her hands.
To take such steps as these, two things are wanted: understanding of the strategic cross roads at which the schools stand, and a confident attitude towards the future. It is not to be expected that the community will tolerate any pessimistic underestimation of America's past at the moment when their sons are fighting in its name. If past. and future are to be blended, then the same deep, venerative enthusiasm, with which the acceptable teacher speaks of Washington and Lincoln, must inform her whole manner when she speaks of this country in 1976 and 2063. Her overweaning respect for the Founding Fathers must be parallel with an expectation that similar political genius will appear again to work out new political inventions for a far larger group than the thirteen colonies or the present forty-eight states. Only if her enthusiasm about the Future is of the same quality as her enthusiasm for the achievements of the Past, can she, who is otherwise a threat to the perpetuation of the status quo, commend the future to the community, to the parents of the children whom she teaches.