Category Archives: education and the production of class

comments about the educational activities that might lead to the production of what will later be identified by sociologists as “social class.”

Transporting school into home

I rarely I find a New York Times analysis that echoes something I wrote. On October 1, 2020, Carina Chocano did just that in a piece  on “Distance learning, with shades of big brother.” This was triggered by a wonderful awful video on what little girls should NOT do when Zooming school.

young girl doing school at home via Zoom
do not eat while Zooming for school

As Chocano points out, this video is nor really addressed to 5 year old girls, but rather to her parents.

Why would such a video be necessary?  Why does it make so much sense for school people to tell parents to watch it?

A long time ago (1984), McDermott and I wrote about a well known chore of 20th century modernity: “homework” that is school work to be performed at home. As children continue to do all their school work at home anthropologists should wonder anew about the relationship between home and school.  In 1984,  we argued that family education looks nothing like school education. In general, the organization of family education will always evolve through mechanisms that centralizing authorities cannot fully direct—even as they attempt to do so. Simply put, school teachers are licensed by the State, family teachers are not. School teachers are disciplined by assistant principals or “inspectors” (as they are called in France) to check whether they enforce the currently approved curriculum or pedagogy. Parents, in contrast, cannot be routinely disciplined-thus perhaps the need for a video on how to do school at home.

Our main goal in the 1984 paper was to highlight the reality of family education and particularly the paradox that this education shapes the actual performance of “homework” and easily trumps what the School attempts to do.  We were also trying to investigate an alternate, ethnographic and ethnomethodological, route to the analysis of the great school mystery: why is it that an institution designed to mitigate birth privilege as been such at failure at doing so.  Since the late 1960s at least, “big data” social scientists have established that the most powerful predictor of school success is family organization (Coleman 1966: 218ff).  Half a century later, not much has changed. How can that be?

The most common answer is the one Chocano learned in college.  As she tells us, while watching the video she was reminded of prisons and “big brother.” She then goes on to quote Michel Foucault about disciplining the body of children-as-pupil  to make “docile bodies” who “internalize” the discipline into adulthood and parenthood when they will reproduce it.   She might also have quoted Bourdieu on the production of an “habitus”  without noticing that reproduction through internalization is an altogether wild hypothesis.   This is not Chocano’s fault.  She was probably not taught that Foucault had radically discounted all evidence that the (let’s say French) State (of, say, the first half of the 20th century), however centralized and hegemonic over its provinces essentially failed in its task. The French State did discipline speakers of Provencal into speakers of French (as happened to my grandparents) and it did punish those who refused to send their children to school. But this State, like all other states, failed to so discipline families in their internal organization.  The State and its wardens (to develop what Foucault does not quite tell us is a metaphor) could not prevent families from appearing to satisfy wardens and inmates that they should not punished while they actually escaped the fate the institution prepared for them.

Readers of Foucault and Bourdieu should now focus on this failure of the School to control families.  McDermott and I, as cultural anthropologists have done since Boas at least, were trying to do by documenting the multiplicities of alternate ways families found to do what their schools was trying to discipline them to do.  In the language of the video, they did eat while doing homework, they danced when they should have been sober, and they doodled in the margins of their workbooks (like the little girl does when she fills a comment box with unicorn emojis!).

What I would now say McDermott and I were also doing was bringing out the way school work at home threatens internal familial dynamics and thus requires specific family work to encompass what the School requires. Transporting school into home makes a crisis that those who make this home must then deal with.  By proceeding in this fashion, from crisis to observation of the work of re-ordering, we were doing what anthropologists have always done and was made by Garfinkel into a fundamental methodological tool: we use disruption in the habitual to get a better sense of that particular order some human beings try to live by.  They rarely did.  But we are now living just such a crisis and it can tell us much about many of our institutions including, of course, all institutions in their educational roles.

As I argued earlier, C19 does not close schools, only some people can do this and, in the process, produce the local orders I label “Corona.”  But, as it is daily made evident, Corona, anywhere that it is getting institutionalized, is made up of different practices depending on whether one is acting as an agent of the School (say a person-as-teacher Zooming) or whether one is doing so as an agent of one’s family (say this teacher-as-parent setting up a child’s Zoom). Interestingly, the production channels are more complex as State agencies are themselves organized so that the part of the State dedicated to public health can impose matters on that other aspect of the State designed to shape schools and maintain this shape.   By enforcing the injunction “Stay Home! Stay Safe!” public health official created a crisis for school  governors who had little choice but to transport school into family.  And, as these governors knew well, by doing this they were also relinquishing much of their disciplinary methods … thus the production of a video that is clear evidence that these governors know very well that children-as-children will do all the things marked as “NO!” on the video (and much else that would not be shown on a “family-friendly” video).  And they know that their parents may let them do these NO things.  Parents may organize their child so that he could, should he decides to do it on his own, explore the Siberian Socialist Republic one one monitor while School Zoom drones  on the others.

young boy doing school at home via Zoom
exploring the Siberian Socialist Republic while Zooming to school on another monitor

That parents may organize their children do what the school say they should not do may or may not be a problem.  As an anthropologist, I always err in the direction of celebrating the human capacity to find ways through crisis no other human being can imagine. One might even say transporting school into home is a step towards “deschooling” society (Illich 1970).  And yet, as a child of three centuries of “democratic” revolutions I also understand the concern about the reproduction of birth privilege through family processes that trump school processes.  Access to three monitors and a desk of one’s own is not something many parents can do.  C19 is also an occasion and justification to radically distance one’s children from all sort of undesirables to the parents—they might carry diseases! There was a good policy reason for “public” schools that radically separated children from their parents and local communities. Whether the aftermath of Corona will lead to a return to this kind of schooling that was already on the way out is something an anthropologist cannot say.


Coleman, James      1966 Equality of educational opportunity. Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Foucault, Michel   [1975] 1978     Discipline and punish. Tr. by A. Sheridan. New York: Penguin Books.

Illich, Ivan 1970 Deschooling society. New York: Harper & Row.

McDermott, R.P., S. Goldman and H. Varenne   1994     “When School Goes Home: Some Problems and Defensive Tactics,” Teachers College Record. 85: 391-409.

Print This Post Print This Post

on college education, snake oil, and Silicon Valley

My readers and students know my skepticism about the financial, or human capital, “value” of college education (December 12th, 2012; April 18th, 2013).  And they know I quote a lot of “anecdotal evidence,” including from my immediate family.

My point of departure often was a column by Thomas Friedman of the New York Times who echoed academic arguments, often from economists, about this very value.  This of course has been powerfully amplified by national politicians, cheered by universities dependent on student loan guarantees.

So it may interesting to wonder about the possibility that the conversation about college is entering a new phase.

For Friedman is now being educated by Google and he is wondering about what Google is doing might lead:

LAST June, in an interview with Adam Bryant of The Times, Laszlo Bock, the senior vice president of people operations for Google — i.e., the guy in charge of hiring for one of the world’s most successful companies — noted that Google had determined that “G.P.A.’s are worthless as a criteria for hiring, and test scores are worthless. … We found that they don’t predict anything.” He also noted that the “proportion of people without any college education at Google has increased over time” — now as high as 14 percent on some teams. At a time when many people are asking, “How’s my kid gonna get a job?” I thought it would be useful to visit Google and hear how Bock would answer. (How to Get a Job at Google, Part 2: April 19 2014)

Continue reading on college education, snake oil, and Silicon Valley

an education into Ritalin for college success

I am an altogether avid reader of Discover, a magazine about “Science, Technology, and The Future.” I find something interesting in almost every issue. Sometimes it is a bit of new knowledge interesting for its own sake. Often it is because it provides a brief glimpse of the actual doing of science, and thus help think further about the anthropology of science, and also anthropology as a science. Quite regularly, in recent years, it gives me a sense of a journalistic discourse about matters at the edge of science and politics–particularly, on the one hand in the common articles about ecology, global warming, etc., and, on the other hand, on human evolution and sociobiology,

In the April 2009 issue I found in passing a little of Americana directly related to my arguments about the uncontrolled education of the officially ignorant. In an article on “Building a better brain” (the title is not ironic, and gives a sense of the editorial attitude towards the story) that discusses about the great things “mind-altering drugs” might do for humanity, they write:

In a study published last year in Pharmacotherapy, researchers at the University of Maryland found that of 1,208 college students, 18 percent took ADHD medications like Ritalin and Adderall even though the drugs had not been prescribed. You might think the college students were taking stimulants mostly to party, but that is not what the researchers found. The students were taking the stimulants mainly to help with studying. (Baker, 2009)

The story is written in the “brave new world” discourse of enhanced possibilities (“Think of millions of workers in India or China cognitively enhanced with neuropharmaceuticals. Will the United States be able to compete?”). The original study took the opposite tack. The paper ended with warnings to physicians and parents about “overuse and/or diversion of stimulant drug” (Arria, Caldeira, O’Grady, Johnson, & Wish, 2008, p. 266).

Neither wondered about is my perennial question (Varenne 2008, 2009): where do the students find out about these drugs? What sort of conversations do they have about them? To whom do they talk about it? That is, how do they educate themselves about these drugs? What is the place of the race for school of success in these discussions?

The last matter is particularly intriguing. For those who have done the work to inform themselves about off-label use of these drugs, how to take them, when, etc., including the possibility that it will improve their test scores, then the total event is another aspect of the battle of the mediocre middle-class against the probability that others are likely to do better on pure merit. As with steroids in sports, it is a matter of getting the edge. In other words, it is possible that taking these drugs is part of a larger conversation about succeeding in school that older adolescents and young adults must be having among themselves and with their parents (and about which we altogether have little detailed research).

Given this ongoing education about school success, then it is probable that the call from the authors of the article for “more parent education” that consists purely of listing the “risks” of taking these drugs is altogether pathetic. The risks of NOT taking them, for some students, may be higher, and they will not trust the People of the School, and all the less that they must also know that, for all intent and purposes, taking these drugs is cheating at School.