Category Archives: Education

On an education into elevators (62 years into a life in modernity)

(Actually, I do not remember when I learned about elevators, or when I first operated one, so it may less than 62 years since I reached the point when I did not have to think about operational procedures—until last week)

One of the best experience of my visit to New Orleans for the annual anthropology meetings (except for wonderful papers by “my” students) occured each time I approached the elevators at my (Sheraton) hotel. On the first day, as I left the registration desk, located my elevator banked, rushed into an open elevator, turned around with hand raised to punch my floor …… I was stopped in my tracts: there were not buttons to push. Where the buttons would have been was a bolted cover. As the doors closed I made a panic exit and looked around. There, I saw a small sign (actually I noticed later that there was a large sign about “elevator upgrades” which I had ignored). It told me that operating the elevators was “as simple as 1, 2, 3″ (making me and, I believe, many others feel properly stupid). As Garfinkel told us, the problem with instructions is that there are to be instruction about the instructions. I had not gotten this instruction to look for instructions but now I had no choice. I did find the instruction and was told that, here and then, one had to punch one’s floor outside the elevator, listen to the voice telling us floor and elevator (“33, Car H”). It was not until my third or four trip that I noticed that a small panel up on the side of the door lit up to indicate the floors where the elevator would stop. Two days later all this had become routine: 1) punch your floor and listen to the instruction about the car to take; 2) locate this car and stand in front of it; 3) as the doors open check the side panel for confirmation and move confidently. I had learned!

However, telling this story as an autobiography of the movement from ignorance to knowledge, leaves asides all sorts of other performances involving many more people with whom I waited for and rode the Sheraton elevators. I was not the only one to have been jogged out of my assumptions about elevators and I found myself one of those who instructed other people, our temporary consociates, about these elevators when we suspected that they had not read the posted instructions and were just rushing into an open elevator without having entered their floor outside, or when we saw them with hand hovering over the bolted panel looking around for the buttons. By then people knew something was wrong and they took our instruction to exit the elevator and punch their floor.

But education, as I have been arguing is not only about learning, or even teaching. It is also about commenting, interpreting, placing the event into broader patterns. By the second or third day, if there were several persons in the elevator, it was quite common for impromptu conversations to start among people who did not know each other: “these are the worst elevators!” “I hate this hotel!” “How could they do this? What’s the point?”. And then there were the comments about the commenting: “Isn’t it interesting how the elevators makes us talk to each other.” And so, in the world of education we also have


commenting on instructions

commenting on comments about instruction

In this vein of commenting about commenting about commenting… let me expand on one of my favorite statement from Garfinkel: “Consider also that once you get into line persons will not therein question that you have rightfully gotten into line unless you start screwing around. Then you get instructed.” (2002: 257) This statement appears as another illustration of achieved orderliness and of the methods through which this orderliness is accomplished. But it does not directly address the cases when those who screw around with a simple task like using an elevator are engineers, backed by powerful corporations, and by unimpeachable discourses about efficiency and such (including energy efficiency, easily linked to discourses about saving the planet). Then, new conditions have been inscribed and “we,” the future members of temporary ad hoc “congregations” (in Garfinkel’s term) or of “polities of practice” (in my terms) must now make new orders. It may be that, in a few years, the Sheraton method to using elevators will have become so common as to hide its extra-vagance (Boon 1999). It will then be “as if” people were habituated into “their” culture (when in fact they are just putting up with someone else’s cultural production).

But these new orders will be required only as long as those who build the machineries of our lives (including the political, economic, classificatory, etc., machines) can maintain them against our own extra-vagance—unless of course they change them.

on taming the ignorant powerful …

In an earlier post, I asked a question, with a tongue in my cheek: “how could we tame Oprah?” I did not specifying who ‘we’ are, on what grounds ‘we” should try to tame her, and whether taming Oprah (and others like her) is something that could be done.  After all, they are wonderfully extra-Vagant (as Boon, 1999, might put it) and likely to escape most forms of social control.

I leave the questions open for the moment in order to expand the puzzle triggered by a critique of the advice Oprah dispenses on matters like vaccination.  There is every evidence that, from the ‘official’ public health point of view, her shows can be dangerous, particularly when she discusses vaccination.  She may endanger the health of individual children not getting vaccinated, as well as the health of the public as these children get sick and may sicken others.  At least this is what us, sober headed experts in public health as driven by medical research, might say (and have said).  As a highly schooled expert myself, and someone who generally accepts what other experts tell me, I am uncomfortable at any challenge to my expertise, particularly when it comes from someone as powerful as Oprah.  But I am not writing her to complain.  I continue here to puzzle.

In the earlier post, I marveled at Oprah’s pedagogy (the way she formats the discussions) and at her use of a classic American formula where highly schooled experts are pitted against the common sense of the non-expert.  As a cultural anthropologist, I cheer at a particularly striking improvisation on an old theme.

But I am also an anthropologist interested in education.  As such I am puzzled and need to figure out how the new skepticism about medical authority is actually performed, by whom and when.  So I was fascinated by an editorial by Joel Stein of Time Magazine about “The Vaccination War” and how it played out in a “liberal, wealthy [couple] of L.A.” and their immediate network.  He assumed his new-born would be vaccinated, his wife said ‘No’.  So:

To try to be open-minded and stop our fighting, I went to a seminar about inoculation at Cassandra’s yoga center.  Along with about 50 other people, we paid $30 each to listen to Dr. Lauren Feder.

This Dr. Feder explained why inoculation is not necessary, and how not immunizing might possibly be healthier for the child.  I am tempted to write about this as a case of deliberate mis-education and induced ignorance among the prosperous and powerful.  I could also write it as a case of resistance among some of the powerful (the people who might appear in Larry David’s Curb your enthusiasm) against some other powerful people (health experts).  Unless of course it is just a case of mass hysteria.

Again, I do not want to complain, but the problem remains: “how are we to tame the mis-guided powerful?” (if we decided to do so).

“Educational research” has produced much that has documented the apparent ignorance of the poor and powerless, particularly as compared to the apparent knowledge of the prosperous and powerful.  This literature assumes that the latter know (more) and that they pass this knowledge on to their children (“cultural capital”).  But what if the prosperous also mis-educate their children, if not on matters relating to schooling at school-relevant moments (e.g. high stake exams), at least on a lot of other matters, and at other times?  And what if the prosperous’ success in school tests is not quite a reflection of what they end up “knowing”?  What if the prosperous, often, just pass (pretend, lie) at passing (school tests)?  There is some evidence that the children of the poor sometimes fail at tests because they refuse to do what it takes to pass.  We need to see if, in some case and for certain purposes, the children of the powerful succeed at the same tests because all they have done is do what it takes to pass, without learning in the sense of understanding or accepting the answers they gave on the tests.  When test-taking is done, then what they actually learned over the course of their schooling, or what they continue to educate themselves about as they grow older, may reveal itself as something else altogether than school-people might have expected.

Joel Stein, in the same column, says something very interesting and challenging to us school people about the source of his adult knowledge:

Even in the age of Google and Wikipedia, we still receive almost all of our information through our peers.  I believe in evolution not because I’ve read Darwin but because everyone I know things it’s true.

Now, that is a challenge for all educators, and for all researchers on education.

how to tame Oprah …

In the space of two days, I watched a PBS biography, of Benjamin Franklin and an journalistic discussion of Oprah Winfrey Show in Newsweek (June 8, 2009).  Of course, the scholars who discussed Franklin mentioned again and again his place in American history as one of the first and most powerful advocate and practitioner of self-education both through one’s own efforts and through the efforts of people like himself to teach in such a way as to make it easier for people to self-educate.  The journalists reporting on the Winfrey show emphasized the way she presents health issues with an emphasis on personal vs. expert knowledge.  Arguably, both Franklin and Winfrey belongs to the same American tradition that Franklin helped institutionalized.  Both establish their authority by calling on the common sense skepticism about the wisdom of legitimized authority.  It has been said that P. T. Barnum used similar rhetorical moves as he presented the displays for which he was famous as occasions to exercise the skepticism of the audience. One did not have to take Barnum at his word, but one should come in and check for oneself.  Winfrey uses the same argumentation in the statement she released to Newsweek when she was asked to respond to their story: “People are responsible for their actions.  The information presented on the show is … not an endorsement … My intention is for the viewers to … engage in a dialogue with their medical practitioners.”  In other words: “Do not believe me! Judge for yourself!”

Early in my career I would have stopped here with a quip like “only in America!” and possibly mentioned other famous current people who use similar forms. The symbolic successes of Sarah Palin can certainly be linked to the same broad cultural pattern; and so can the refusal to accept the usual narratives about U.S. history, or evolution; and so perhaps can much of what has made the Interned powerful as a tool for cultural production (education).  In the inner cities, the Bible Belt, and probably everywhere else as well, the call to trust common sense over expertise remains what it has been—and Hollywood is happy to profit from it.  As Franklin said of his Almanac: “I endeavored to make it both entertaining and useful and … I reaped considerable profit from it” (as quoted in Cremin, 1970: 374).

But today, I will not stop with an altogether admiring wonder at American quirks.  I am involved in an academic struggle with the definition of what is to count as educational (school reform) policy in the United States and, particularly, with the search for a method to control what experts have determined should be taught by American schools so that it is learned by all American children (so that no child, indeed, is left behind).  I have argued that this attempt is unlikely to work if it focuses solely on schools.  Actually I am not even sure that going beyond schooling to understand education would be enough.  This is where Winfrey comes in.  Provocatively, how might “we,” expert scientists from schools of education, tame Winfrey and come to control her health education curriculum?  Should “we”? And who are the “we” who claim the right to control this curriculum?

And so, I was reminded again of Rancière and the argument that education cannot be tamed.  I thank Dr. Linda Lin for thinking of the paradigm of the wild/domesticated/tamed as best capturing Rancière’s argument as it must be generalized.  Education cannot be tamed and all the efforts to tame it are in vain—and this is a very good thing for the production of new cultural forms.

But that leaves those of us who are quite sure of our expertise with a dilemma. How do we reach the settings where licensed teachers do not have direct authority, from families to the media, from street corners to churches or mosques? How do we tame Oprah?


Cremin, Lawrence American education: The Colonial Experience.  New York: Harper & Row. 1970

on ‘Lost’ as educator

There is a part of me that is half-ashamed in the pleasure I take in such shows as the TV series Lost.  It is of course gratifying to know that many people do.  More interesting is the discovery of what so many of these people are doing with the show.  Let me join them.

I will leave to a student the task of tracing the full extent of what people are actually doing with Lost.  Given its success, I am sure someone has started doing this.  So I will give this student one more issue to trace: Lost can also be explored as a site for education.  I build here on a journalistic piece written for the web site of Christianity Today.  I will do so to highlight the educational aspect of the show and how its fits with what I have been writing about in recent years (2008, 2009).

This piece (posted 5/18/2009) is written by Tyler Charles, a freelance writer.  He mentions some of what people are doing with Lost as they investigate the scientific, literary, philosophical and religious hints the show gives.  Charles lists the books and philosophers mentioned, the major philosophical issued revealed, as well as other matters.  He does not mention anyone exploring the political aspects of the show and yet, particularly in the first season, a major issue was the nature of leadership and the organization of government (“Who made you the leader, Jack?”, “A leader can’t lead until he knows where he is going.” – Episode 5).  Actually, this issue has been reopened with the (divine?) appointing of Locke as leader by “the island.”  I suspect some people are also exploring this since it can open conversations about the very grounding of democracy.

Charles reports that people are following these leads.  They seek to find out more about the physics of time travel and electromagnetism, or what might make John Locke or David Hume important enough persons to have characters named after them.  Of course, there is a wiki site where one can start exploring all this:

The French philosopher Jacques Rancière (who still does not have a character named after him on Lost…) brought out of obscurity a, until now, minor figure of the French Revolution, Joseph Jacotot.  Rancière recounts how Jacotot demonstrated, to his satisfaction at least, that any one, particularly someone who did NOT know the subject matter, could “teach” this matter.  Even more challenging he argued that all the material they needed was one book, Télémaque written by Fénelon.  It was not because the book was a source of universal wisdom but because, to say all this more carefully:

anyone (not quite a teacher) can produce a situation
…… where someone else (not quite a student) can learn
………. what this person must have the will to learn, and that,

given this will,

…… anything (and not necessarily Télémaque)

………. can start this person on the way to find out for herself what she wants to know.

This actually might be the basis for a Lost episode.  Unless it is the point of the whole show where everyone has to figure out, again, what to do next given what has happened to them in the past.

In that perspective, Lost (like probably Star Trek, Star Wars, etc.) is becoming a Télémaque for a generation of people using it as a departure to teach themselves about physics, religion, human relationships, etc., not to mention of course many aspects of what used to be called “literary criticism,” and would now fall under the purview of “popular culture studies.”

The question, for a faculty at Teachers College, of Columbia University, is: when someone teaches herself anything, does she “learn” it?  Does one know something if no one has certified that she does?

on being educated about cancer, death rates, and their statistical interpretation

Last week, I completed the first draft of what is to be the postface of the third volume of the Perspectives on Comprehensive Education Series I am co-editing with Ed Gordon.  It includes a few lines about the responsibility for journalists to build on their educative role.  They educate, whether they are aware of it or not, simply by providing information about the world we all inhabit.  I use the word ‘educate’ rather than ‘teach’ to distinguish between activities where one can check what those who read (watch, or whatever) might learn, and activities where there is no way to check.  Journalists make something available that is much more than “information” or even “opinion.”  Journalists make us discover what we might not know, and they organize a curriculum, as well as a pedagogy.  How might we get them to take this activity even more seriously than some of them already may do?

There is much evidence that journalists know about their educative role.  One example is a sub-story that accompanied a New York Times story about the difficulty of curing cancer, “Advances Elusive in the Drive to Cure Cancer” (NYT, April 23, 2009).  The handle supposed to get our attention (I think) is the fact that modern medicine has been much more successful at dealing with heart disease than with cancer.  The basic “data” is a comparison of death rates and a spectacular table summarizing “Deaths from cancer, adjusted for the size and age of the population [compared] to death rates from heart disease and stroke.”

What I found interesting was that the story was accompanied by a related story, “As Other Death Rates Fall, Cancer’s Scarcely Moves.”  This story was published as a box within the other story in the print version of the New York Times.  That story consisted of an explanation of what is meant by “death rate,” why the statistics are not “lying and hiding major advances,” why there might be “other explanations… for example … the competing cause-of-death hypothesis” and why there are no easy explanations.  This story is really not “news” but it is an essential educative expansion of the story by exploring the questions a reader might ask.  The story ends with links to related stories from the Times over the past few years that might be considered an expansion of the paper’s curriculum about cancer death rates.

Now, I do not know enough about the editing of newspapers to know how the basic story, and then the explanatory story, are scheduled or which story is to be expanded by an explanation.  It is not uncommon.  I would say I learned most of what I have gotten to know about “credit default swap” and other mysterious financial stuff from explanatory stories in the major media.

The interesting next question is how to encourage the media to expand this service.  In all sorts of ways, the development of the web has made it much easier for them to do this, as long as the stories remain available essentially for free.  One imagines, and this is a matter of both curriculum and pedagogy,  that they would link to some kind of “wiki.”  Given the doubts about wikis, the media and/or a university that might stand with it, one imagine a controlled wiki where information would be peer reviewed, then linking further to less controlled wikis, as well as an expanding web of links.  I am sure there are many other possibilities.

What I now want to find out easily is: how do statistics about death rates relate to statistics about causes of death?

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.