Culture: possibilities and consequences

An introduction to anthropology and education 
for anthropologists and educators


Hervé Varenne

Teachers College, Columbia University


Introduction for educators

[Education is] the deliberate, systematic, and sustained effort to transmit, evoke, or acquire knowledge, attitudes, values, skills, or sensibilities,[...]. This definition obviously projects inquiry [...] to a host of individuals and institutions that educate - parents, peers, siblings, and friends, as well as families, churches, synagogues, libraries, museums, settlement houses, and factories. And it clearly focuses attention on the relationships among the several educative institutions and on the effects of one institution's efforts on those of another. (1978: 701).

By "educators" I mean here, with a bow to Cremin, the most deliberate of educators–philosophers, researchers, policy makers, school administrators, and teachers. They are those who propose and implement policy for all other educators to live with–including such people as children, parents, and all other non-school. Democratic discourses of participation or representation too easily mask the authority of a class of persons joined together less by their often quite divergent interests and more by their position within a social field (or "culture") where schooling is dominant.

I further construct "educators" here to be those with the strongest passion for discovering what must be known for children to be guided safely to full participation in a democratic polity. In other words, I address a future John Dewey rewriting Democracy and education in an attempt further to specify his Creed. And I do so in the spirit of Williams James in his Talks to teachers on psychology (1899).

In many ways John Dewey prefigured what would make anthropology of interest to educators: it actually works at fulfilling the research project he suggested–even though, with his pragmatist colleagues he assigned the task to psychology. Of course he starts and ends with the child, a possibly dangerous though inevitable move in American democratic ideology. But, right away, John Dewey moves to "communication," "community," and the impact of social conditions on the shaping of the person. What actual children can do is the product of the organization of the dominant institutions in their communities. Thus deliberate educators have no choice but to investigate the totality of the social world their children inhabit, including both face to face interactions at home, in the streets and in classrooms, and also indirect relationships with institutions–whether economic, political or expressive.

This add awesome responsibilities to those who design schools (by definitions large institutions with long histories) for individual children recently born and still open to all human potentialities some of which educators might wish to develop and others to stunt. How do we, as deliberate educators, ensure that the next generations of children, whether or not born from parents who have gone through liberal schools, will demonstrate themselves to be democrats capable of noticing what needs to be reformed given new conditions in the continuing movement towards more perfect forms of democracy? Notice the dilemma: educators must use hegemony so that future hegemonic forms remain only hegemonic to the extent that they foster individual self-expression.

Dewey did not quite resolved the dilemma. He trusted schools in ways that we find hard to do. But the issue for me here is not to propose solutions but rather to present what one form of social scientific inquiry has contributed to an investigation of this dilemma. In brief, anthropology offers

  1. a field of phenomena for analysis: culture as a reality as inescapable as gravity: human interaction is always shaped by forces that cannot be reduced to sociobiological requirements even when those are overwhelming. Something as possibly fundamentally biological as sexual attraction is transformed into particular forms of courting, dating, where persons will get together always in particular settings, using particular conventions for communication their attractions, etc.
  2. an epistemology: knowledge is a cultural construction limited and enabled by its own cultural position. This is not a movement away from science but rather a further development in understanding how we get to know about the world, particularly the human world.
  3. a methodology: ethnography broadly defined as the careful description of what human beings do together

"We may perhaps best define [the aims of anthropological research] as the attempt to understand the steps by which [humanity] has come to be what [it] is, biologically, psychologically and culturally" (Boas 1940 [1932]: 243).

The body of this work will take educators into areas that may appear at times quite removed from their everyday realities. The work is mostly addressed to fellow anthropologists. Still, educators may find it useful to peak over the shoulders of those investigators most likely to give them what they are looking for.