Culture: possibilities and consequences


Hervé Varenne

Teachers College, Columbia University


The problem

The first publications specifically linking education with anthropology may be two papers by Edgar Hewett. The first (1904) consists of two pages affirming the relevance of scientific anthropological knowledge for school people. The second(1905) addresses what remains a perennial topic: what is the influence of cultural environment on the psychology of individuals and how does this impact teaching and learning in schools.

At the same time, Emile Durkheim was giving a series of lectures on education, pedagogy, the history of schooling in France that were both an application of his sociology and a development as he kept thinking about the relationship of the individuals to the determined forces that seek to constrain them, as well as change in institutional patters. This papers were later collected in several volumes (1956 [1922], 1974 [1925], 1969 [1938] )

And at the same time, John Dewey started his argument for an education that would systematically foster democracy (1916) through a set of examples where he emphasizes the need for children to be made to fit within human environments that are not directly biologically given.

These three already the problematics that continue to define the anthropology of education as continually reconstituted: what does anthropology have to contribute to the politics of the public school in an enlightened society.

By the 1930s, Teachers College has begun to offer courses in anthropology as part of the foundations of education. By 1948 Margaret Mead has started what would be a long association with Teachers College where she taught until the early 1970s. In 1953 Solon Kimball joined the faculty. By the 1970s there were up to eight faculty members with PhDs in anthropology at Teachers College. A similar evolution occurred at Berkeley, Stanford, Harvard, Pennsylvania, etc.

Two dates mark the institutionalization of the anthropology of education. In 1954, a conference brings together ...... along with several school researchers and professionals. The proceedings of this conference are published in a volume edited by George Spindler. In 196? some of the same participants organized the Council on Anthropology and Education as a subsection within the American Anthropological Association. The mission statement confirms the problematics that already characterized the field: ....

The first generations

When one takes as broad a view of the anthropology of education as I take, much of the work on socialization and enculturation of the 30s and 40s could be placed within the literature. They are certainly at the root of what must count as the opening of the field itself: the work on Jules Henry, the Spindlers and Solon Kimball. The contemporary works of sociologists strongly influenced by anthropology must also be included here: Parsons, Hollingshead, Lacey, Coleman, Jencks. As issues of internal differentiation came to the forefront (class, race and ethnicity particularly) it became impossible for anthropologists to conduct educational research that did not directly confront this differentiation, though some of the problems associated with certain uses of the concept of culture to explain differences in performance may be associated with a certain naivete about issues of social structure in industrial societies that a more thorough training in sociology might have averted.

Culture as the fate of human beings: At the edge of anthropology of education, we might use Erik Erikson as the prototype of the culture and personality stance that it might possible to understand culture by examining the early enculturation of people within particular configurations interacting with purely psychological processes (particularly, but not necessarily, Freudian). Childhood and society (1950) can stand as the classic text that guided generations of anthropologists, in one way or another, as they explored possibilities or resisted as they noticed what it lacked. The early work by the Spindlers would fit here, as well as, though mostly by implication, the classical statement by Oscar Lewis about the "culture of poverty" (1966). Somewhat more ambiguously, though much more passionately, stand the works of Jules Henry (1963, 1966) who, by emphasizing, the experience of stress that many experience at the core of the culture that is most closely "theirs" by most accounts should make one doubt the common sense understandings of "sharing" that guided much of the work on enculturation. Reading Henry one should wonder about the implications for educational theory of the fact that the most enculturated can also be the one that are most at risk for a quite form of culturally grounded despair. At the periphery of all this work, one might also include the work of the Whitings as they attempted to systematize cross-cultural comparison in child-rearing practices.

2) Culture ("society") as the fate of collectivities: Anthropologists of education often forget that some of the earliest work by anthropologists on schools in their relation to their local communities. The chapters on "Training the young" in the Lynds path-breaking Middletown (1929), for example, they take a determined institutional tack:

Living goes on all about him at a brisk pace, speeded up at every point by the utilization of complex shorthand devices–ranging all the way frm the alphabet to daily market quotations and automatic machinery–through which vast quantities of intricate social capital are made to serve the needs of the commonest member of the group. (1956 [1929]: 181)

They then proceed to address issues of differentiation in achievement, class, curriculum, pedagogy, etc., in their relationship to the major forces organizing the town. Twenty years later, Hollingshead further developed similar themes in Elmtown's Youth (1949). Parsons provided the related theoretical analysis (1959). In the same period a series of ethnographies of high school were published (Cusik 1973; Gordon 1957; Lacey 1970). To the extent that these stood apart from the "cultural" anthropology of their times, they precisely did not address issues of enculturation but rather, particularly when read in the context of the work of Myrdal, Jencks, Coleman and others, brought out the extent to which the institutions of education in the United States were directly implicated in the reproduction of the American social structure. This could be done somewhat bloodlessly in structural-functionalism or passionately when the spotlight was placed on the non-random distribution of individuals from different categories (gendered, raced, etc.) in the new generations.

It is easy to caricature of the early work in enculturation for its disregard of all matters of differentiation within the United States: becoming American was becoming an individualist and a democrat, not an upper-middle class snob with racist undertones. It is easy to caricature of the work on institutions and social structures as mechanistic and uninterested in the agency of individuals. The problem with these caricatures is that the solution, give an individually based explanation of social structuration, may produce the very worst of social scientific interpretation. What we should now caricature are any statements that suggest directly or not that one is acquired by the various categories built for all of us in the history of America on the basis of personal characteristics.

November 2000