The realization of a form of social life in which interests are mutually interpenetrating ... makes a democratic community more interested than other communities have cause to be in deliberate and systematic education ... After greater individualization on one hand, and a broader community of interest on the other have come into existence, it is a matter of deliberate effort to sustain and extend them. (Dewey 1916: 87) ...The movement for the democratic idea inevitably became a movement for publicly conducted and administered schools. (Dewey 1916: 93)


I will be talking here as

  • an anthropologist
  • specifically as a cultural anthropologist
  • and more specifically again as a cultural anthropologist with an understanding of "culture" that is somewhat marginal to the main traditions in the field with which you may be more familiar

I will also be talking to you as

  • a French citizen, born and raised in France,
  • who came to the United States when I was 20, got a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago and conducted all my adult life in the United States

And I will be talking from the point of view of the outsider, the child developing in America and its schools, the adult immigrant beginning a work like in the United States, the tourist crossing the oceans for the first time, or even the many who will only encounter America from afar in the media and other forms.


Anthropology, for me, is a systematic look at the humanity of human beings in what they make together. More specifically, anthropology, is concerned with the collective achievements of human beings with what they find around them. This includes their biological bodies, their ecology, and all that other human beings have made throughout history--including tools, languages, customs, laws and institutions. This also includes the history that is made by others acting in parallel with them sometimes very far away from them.

It is not only the case that people in Europe and America must deal with what Europeans and Americans from earlier eras have made, or that people in China must deal with what the Chinese from earlier eras have made. It is also the case now, and for the past few centuries, that both peoples must deal with what the other has made.

Within anthropology, cultural anthropology is founded on the decisions to focus determinedly on the astounding multiplicity of what human beings, together, have made for each other. This is the multiplicity that keeps tempting anthropologists to talk about "cultures" in the plural–in spite of continuing incisive criticism within the discipline. This multiplicity cannot be dismissed analytically. The historical record is clear: from the earliest, what human beings do together here and now is not quite what they did there and then. This is an observation that suggests the need to develop theories and conduct research on the basis of the principle that what human beings do cannot be explained mechanistically as the pure interplay of ecology and biology–nor in fact the interplay of psychology and sociology. Human beings, always, make new ecological, biological, psychological and sociological needs for each other, and then find new ways of fulfilling them that have a way of surprising most predictions. Everything that human beings make is always more than needed–and this is not always a positive thing.

To illustrate this point, let us look briefly at our theme of looking at American education as a particular way of organizing what many would see as a universal need of all human beings who are all born in a biologically unfinished state. As we all know, human infants are not born with all the tools needed to survive within a human group, the most obvious example of this being language: without continuous interaction with other human beings for many months if not years, a child will not be able to integrate himself fully in the life of his society. If we add to biological needs the sociological needs for integration into particular societies, or particular positions within a society, even more complex forms of what we can call "education" (rather than socialization) become necessary. Think for example of things like literacy, or computer expertise.

This reality of human history making new needs out of old ones is what must impose "culture" as a central concept for understanding humanity in general, and education in particular. Human reproduction is not simply biological but also psychological and eventually interactional and institutional. Anthropologists, for many years, have made the point that the facts of biological reproduction do not determine the facts of family organization. What must still be fully argued is that the facts of neurological development after birth do not fully determine either the facts of education. Properly educating a child is not a technological or engineering problem that will be settled when we fully understand the psychological processes through children grow up. Children from some parts of the world will always be educated differently from children in other parts, and children from one subgroup within a society from children in other groups. As Margaret Mead once put it, even infants wriggle differently as they struggle to get out of their mother's arms.

This observation is a warning on policy prescription from one professional to other professionals. What works here may not work there and we need to understand the local conditions before suggesting any course of action. These considerations have become common sense in most social science circle, and particularly in education. But they are also not as clear as they might appear and anthropologists have been partly to blame for not warning professionals more carefully that there is much that remains mysterious about the exact working of cultural evolution in general and as it relates to education. One common sense implication of much theorizing is particularly relevant to what I will be doing in these lectures. Mostly, the processes lead a child to participate fully within a family, school, or nation, are presented as psychological matters of "enculturation" operating mostly below deliberate consciousness. I will suggest here instead that the process is institutional or, more technically, "constitutional": what we have in culture is a matter of earlier acts "constituting" what is now an external object for others to confront. Others can accept or resist the object, or simply work with it, but they cannot ignore it if they are made to enter in contact with it–through birth, invasion, migration or any of the other processes whereby one person, or one group of persons become present to another. This process of constitution of the world of experience is at work when we speak to each other face to face interactions. It is at work when local groups organize themselves. And it is now at work globally as all populations on the earth become present to each other.

This stand has a major consequence. It obliges me to take seriously the deliberate efforts of people over years of controversy to build institutions for each other and for the future. Thus I think of societies as polities, that is groups tied to each other through their political lives together and I take seriously the form of the argumentation that they use to deal with each other. Eventually, I take the position that culture, far from being a psychological matter, is not either purely a political matter. Rather it is a moral matter in the sense that we must assume that people recognize the cultural artificiality of their practices. And so they continue to work not so much to escape this artificiality as to construct it further. Culture has to do with the good as developed by human beings.

John Dewey understood this 100 years ago, but with a major difficulties. He knew (Dewey 1897) that a child could not be educated if, in some way, what was being done did not correspond to the biological mechanisms of development. He also knew that the educational processes could vary enormously from one place or time to another. He also ended up arguing that one political system (either actual or potential) could be better at allowing a child to develop, that this system was the American liberal democratic one. In the process he sided with the founding fathers in their Declaration of Independence that there is a natural law, that this natural law is knowable, and can form an impeachable basis for policy. There is not much room here for the reality of culture as something that both expands nature for human beings and limits our ability to know "nature" before, or apart from, humanity.

This stance has another major consequence. Given that all historical constructions are relatively arbitrary to the needs they purport to satisfy, they remain open to continuing discussion, controversies, or disagreements. In these discussions all sorts of interests will reveal themselves. In that sense, life in culture is not a matter of following implicit rules that remain hidden to insiders but rather a matter of deliberately making one's own life, and that of one's group, in the context of what has already been made, and what is being made elsewhere, and with limited information about the properties of this context.

There preliminaries were intended to give a sense of the intellectual framework that guides my presentation here and I hope that it will become clearer in the presentation itself. It is now time for me to introduce my self in a way that illustrates some general principles about education that derive from the approach to cultural analysis I just sketched.

France, America, and now China

I am still a French citizen. I am sometimes asked why I maintain this citizenship even after 35 years of residence in the United States. To this question, I answer with a claim that this is a protest against nationalism. As I got to understand it through my first 20 years in France, the form of nationalism that developed in Europe from the early 19th century onward, is responsible from some of the worst that human beings inflicted on other human beings. Remaining formally "French" for administrative purposes also allows me to symbolize through my own life the reality of a divide between America and the rest of the world that people in the United States often discount.

People who have been born and raised in the United States, particularly when their parents and grandparents were themselves born and raised in the United States, often say that they are skeptical about the distinctiveness of America as an embodied ideology. America would be multiple, historically, regionally, ethnically, racially, in terms of gender, or sexual identity and an indefinite number of plausible categories.

What is interesting for us here are the implications of this divide, for a person like myself or yourself, for our relationship to France and America, and, of course, to China–though very differently for you than from me who have just entered the country of the first time. Anthropologists and psychologists, following many philosophers of the 19th century, have convinced us all that to be raised anywhere is to incorporate into the very constitution of one's self, both mind and body, whatever properties are typical of the place. Thus to be raised in France has shaped my brain to speak a language, and to find it very difficult to learn others; it has shaped my body; and it may have shaped the way I think. More fatefully perhaps, I may be unaware of most of the ways through which this shaping of my self both advantages me and prevents me from entertaining other possibilities. These are the processes usually referred to as "enculturation" or "socialization" and they are of central import to any theory of education.

The references here are to the classical work in culture and personality renovated over the past 20 years by work in cultural psychology and reproduced in sociology through the word of Bourdieu on habitus. From quite a different angle, Louis Dumont has shown how the universalism of the French philosophers of the 18th century prevented them from focusing on the cultural processes that fascinated first the German philosophers of the 19th century, and then the anthropologists of the 20th.

All of this is well known but cannot quite capture the power of conscious and articulate knowledge over interaction or the deliberate planning of such artifacts as this lecture for example. More importantly, it cannot account for the institutional shaping of educational policies or their implementation in particular settings and in the real time of political controversies being joined by an ever-shifting set of participants. When we start thinking in these terms, then it is not cultural sharing that overwhelms the observer. Rather, what overwhelms is the depth of the disagreements, the range of the argumentation, the heat and passion of the expression of opinions, and also the power of all that is already there at the onset of the argument, or that is being made as it proceeds. The French may be similar to each other in certain ways, but this similarity, whatever it might be, is not something that they often experience in their everyday lives. What they experience, more often, is sometimes painful conflict with their closest kin and neighbors in an inflexible frame. There is something to the often-made argument that to talk of ‘America' as a culture is dangerous if one uses it as a short cut to talk about the internal constitution of individuals in the United States. But there is also a danger in not paying heed about the inflexibility of a frame that has been deliberately built over the centuries.

Theories of enculturation, and thus of knowledge shared, have also another less obvious problem. As I grow older and my responsibilities change (to that of department chair in my university, or grandfather in my family), I am finding out that there is always more to know. Babies, we all know, start up ignorant and through participation, that is testing, evaluation, recalibrating, retesting and so on and so forth, they learn a lot. What many have noticed is that they can never learn enough and that education is a life-long process. By implication, we never escape ignorance and the continued need to try something never quite done before, to check the reaction of others and find out whether what one has just done will pass as adequate, to repair whatever appears to have been a mistake, and to try again in what is fact a new setting. Living in culture is not so much a matter of applying rules learned a long time ago as it is a matter of dealing with one's own ignorance even as all others around seem quite convinced they know things about a self one is still discovering.

These considerations have not been as systematically explored and yet you and I are in a situation where we should take them seriously as we struggle to make something together in these lectures. As I flew over the Pacific Ocean and landed in China for the first time in my life, it is my ignorance that stands the strongest. And yet I am also aware of all the efforts so many are making to help me survive. We may or may not "understand" each other very well and much research in education has shown how serious our differences can be. But I am also convinced that we also need to take seriously all the social interactional mechanisms that allow me to be physically present here in Beijing, starting with welcoming committees (whom I want to thank again), translators or funding agencies, and with many other people I am only dimly aware of. Our meeting today is extraordinary in the amount of deliberate efforts that have to be made for it to proceed. But we should consider it but a more striking instance of what all human beings continually face, even when they go home at night and encounter challenges that are not simply "familiar."

Many years ago, Lévi-Strauss ([1949] 1969) made this point in the context of trying to account for both the universality of the incest taboo and its variability: human beings will always marry outside the groups that they make up in a dialectical process that is both divisive and unifying.

This activity you and I are engaged in across a large divide is, for me, a specifically cultural activity. Too often, anthropologists have peddled the idea that culture is the by-product of social divisions. It is more powerful to see the divide as being the product of cultural activity separating human beings, and then finding ways to deal with the ensuing divide.

America as object standing in the way of all

Of course, by "object," I mean "objects" borrowed from all over and in continual mutation. Both the early Boasian tracing the diffusion of practices, customs, tales, etc., as well as the postmodern emphasis on pastiche, made the point that little in any culture is locally invented. Most is taken from the past or a neighbor and reinterpreted for local purposes. It is also the case, as Boas's students insisted that a pastiche, viewed in its entirety, becomes a gestalt, that is a uniquely powerful object imposing its own interpretation to the person perceiving it even as the person may struggle for alternative interpretations or possibilities for further action. As I argue elsewhere the historical processes constructing a cultural object is only of interest to analysts, not to participants.

These preliminaries were necessary to introduce my approach to American education as a cultural system, that is as a historical, political and eventually moral object with consequences

To illustrate what I mean here, I will use an experience one would have, in a low-flying airplane coming over a small town almost anywhere in the United States of the past 50 years. First, we would fly over miles of empty fields with scattered farm houses disposed at the edges of squares within square in a grid pattern of roads stretching to the horizon. And then would appear an irregular patch of trees and houses. At the side of this patch two sets of massive institutional buildings would stand out in the midst of huge desolate or glittering parking lots: one (or more) shopping malls and one High School. Nestled within the patch of trees and houses, one might notice, if one looked very carefully, a large number of religious buildings.

It is indeed quite common that the high school stands out physically as the largest and best appointed building in a small town. Even in New York City, outside the most photographed center of Manhattan, the largest buildings are schools, often hulking masses dominating the landscape. Everywhere also, the School, as the complex set of physical settings, roles, rules, laws and ideologies, stands out institutionally. One easy way to understand the depth of the difference thereby constituted, is to look briefly at the relation of the various objects I have now mentioned (private houses, shopping malls, churches) and their relationships to the taxing power of the state:

  • private houses and malls are taxed by the local community
  • churches are not taxed but they receive none of the moneys raised by the taxing authorities
  • in most small towns, the majority of these taxes go to the schools.

Finally, though less evident, is the fact that the school personnel are quite likely to be outsiders, intellectual trained away from the local community and bringing back to it ideas and practices generated far from it and disseminated into it through its children. Thus the physical dominance of the high school reflects its position as the place where all who live in the United States most directly confront the dominant, sovereign, if not hegemonic culture that I call "America."

I will not spend much time on the historical processes which over the last three centuries have constituted the world of the public school and its constitutional context. I will just refer you to Cremin 's masterful works (1970, 1980, 1988). In the remainder of this lecture, I will just continue listing some of the most significant markers that, together, contribute to making American education as a separate gestalt. In the process, I will also begin to show how all these markers are, first, practices that reconstitute this gestalt. I will also begin to show that these markers are the particular focus of political contestation among those who, for one reason or another, find themselves at odd with what has been constituted and is being reconstituted. In the next two lectures, I will expand first, on the ideological roots of American education and its various implementations in different settings. In the last lecture, I will expand on the continuing disputes and their sources.

Let us return to the ideal-type of the American small town that I evoked earlier. Imaginatively, and to a certain degree institutionally, it is precisely an island in the wilderness, a self-governing polity in charge of its own fate. It is also, of course, but a spot within a tight grid of regulations defining its place, the limits of its independence and the grounds of its relationships with neighboring towns. The small town is also a transient space only recently organized to be occupied by people who come and go and whose roots, west of the Appalachians for sure, cannot be more than two or three generations deep. For education this means, above all, that it is constituted as fundamentally of local matter. It also means that these localities cannot be trusted by the more encompassing governmental agencies. It means that the local people cannot ignore the external forces that they may have tried to escape in their own movement into the small town. It means that they are continually thrown back to their own devices–even after they have been told that they cannot do this or that. And it also means that they must deal continually with newcomers with undertain allegiances to what old-timers negotiated among themselves.

Let us explore this further starting with two sets of apparently contradictory facts:
• In America, local educational policy is always administered locally by elected school boards.
• In America, a multiplicity of institutions with different missions may limit or constrain what local communities might attempt to do.

School boards vote on policy and they propose taxes. These are put to a vote by the citizens of the town. School boards hire administrators and teachers. They set salaries and are otherwise accountable to their constituencies. Local residents can vote boards members out of office if they do approve of their leadership. State boards, or the Federal Department of Education, by contrast, may suggest policies or forbid others but neither are involved in day to day administration and neither are accountable for their successes or failures. This dual situation makes for complex and tense division between local entities and the broader entities that regulate them, even in large urban centers that are somewhat differently organized. No national mandate can be directly imposed on local communities by executive order. Outsiders with authority, from state and federal agencies to all sorts of non-governmental ones must convince, cajole, bribe even through promises of special grants. Only in extreme situations can local school boards be ordered to organize schools in particular ways–particularly as it concerns matters of race, gender, disability and such that directly impacts individual access. But even these matters must proceed through judicial intervention which, in America, is constituted as quite separate from the executive: American presidents can have strong ideas about the proper organization of education, but they cannot tell any school system, anywhere in the United States, what to do. The Federal government cannot mandate curriculum or pedagogy. It does not directly fund local schools. It is also fundamentally unaccountable for what happens there (even when it may have suggested or encouraged it through various fiscal policies). This is why national discussions in the United States about, say, the apparent lag of American education by contrast to the education of other industrial countries, have an odd character and are easy to misinterpret when seen from overseas: There is nothing that the American center can do about schools!

This of course must not be taken literally. Presidents and the federal Congress, the governors and legislatures of the various states, all directly enter into the fray of local politics. This is implicit in what I just said. But they must do so in particular ways that characterize America as culture. Once this is understood, it is then possible to understand more fully how the instruments of the political center have in fact been so powerful as to make the actual schools of most small towns look so much like schools in other small towns, suburbs and even cities across the territory of the country. For schools, along with malls and highways, may be more uniform than almost any other institution. In fact the kind of formal decentralization has allowed others to become perhaps even more powerful on American schools than the two major levels of government most obviously at work (the Federal and State level). There are a whole slew of non-governmental agencies who have the authority to say about the local organization of education. These include, to name but a few, accreditating groups, professionals in schools of education, text-book publishers, test-makers. We should also add architects and construction companies, insurance companies and lawyers accountants and unions for the non-educational staff. All end up constraining local autonomy to such an extent that many would say that one can only talk of "local independence" ironically: school boards, eventually, can do very little even though everything that does get done must go through them.

This complex interplay of local freedoms and strong regulatory controls is something that is unique to American democracy and remains unchallenged except perhaps at the edges. Take the contrast between the School as massive and unique and the churches as small and diverse. In the landscape of a small town, this is the physical representation of an often, but never so far successfully contested, foundation of America as a political system: the "separation of church from state." This separation is sometimes explained as an attempt to leave all ideological matters to the conscience of the individual thereby made free to associate freely with like-minded people--for example in their own churches. This explanation, of course, is quite disingenuous, and not only because it hides the fact that to distinguish between church and state is itself an ideological matter. For the "public" school (vs. the "private" churches) is specifically designed to enforce a particular ideology that includes not only political matters (e.g. democracy) but also the full range of moral matters that everywhere constitute a nation.

This ideological dominance is most obvious for those who enter a small town for the first time, whether as tourists or as immigrants. In the 19th century, this was so obvious to the first generations of Catholic immigrants for example that it led to the development of huge system of religious schools that have a constituted a parallel educational system now known as "parochial." These schools, from the onset, were protected constitutionally because they identified themselves as "religious" and were publicly acknowledged as such. But the constitution of this parallel system as "religious" also meant that it has had to struggle with no financial help from the state even as American Catholics had to pay taxes for schools their children did not attend. In the past 30 years, new immigrants again found unpalatable the schools they were offered, and there has been a struggle to make public schools internally diverse that continues to be passionately argued. One of the steps has involved stripping public schools of any remaining religious symbols. This has quieted certain strands of contestation. But it has also involved reconstructing the challenge America presents to newcomers by hiding America as ideology and throwing a spotlight on the personal habits (languages, religions, etc.) of both old timers and newcomers. These habits are presented as the "culture" of each group, something that they own, that all must respect, but cannot be the basis for the political organization of anyone. America, in its schools, can respect Islam or Judaism but it can only do so negatively, for example by taking all crosses from the walls of classrooms, or by not celebrating Christian festivals, but it cannot support Muslim or Judaic schools any more than it can support Catholic or any other denominational schools.

It is not that the matter is fully settled or that it does not continue to be contested at the highest levels: One of the issues of the 2000 presidential election revolved around the apparent efforts by the Republican party to support religious schools indirectly through what are known as "vouchers"–that is direct payments to parents for the schooling of their children in schools of their choice. The consensus at this point is that the courts will not allow this. But people will continue to strive to regain fuller formal control of one's children's experience in the institution that dominates at least twelve years of their lives. If anyone discovered a new line of argumentation in the Supreme Court, perhaps one that took the post-modern idea that there cannot be any neutral ideology, then something radically new might be inscribed on the institutional landscapes of America with unpredictable results.
I used the word reconstruction in the context of this discussion to make a point that I will develop at length in the next two lectures. I have introduced American education as a cultural system of institutionalized distinctions inscribed on the landscape of the United States and materially concrete to all those who enter the political field that it is has authority to claim for its own. I have also begun to suggest that it has been continually challenged internally and externally and that, in the process of handling these challenges we must pay attention as much if not more at what was reconstructed as to what was changed. For all sorts of reasons, people in the United States looking at what happens there focus on "change." After all, 50 years ago, many schools in the United States were segregated by race, 30 years ago there was little sex education there, and, in the past five years, the Internet has entered its walls. Like many foreigners and some internal critics, what I find striking about America is the stability of its constitutional framework and, I would argue, the always deeper inscription of the institutions that it has produced. The separation of Church from State, the construction of Education as a matter of the building of proper selves for participation in a democratic society that is still a-building, the pursuit of happiness almost at any cost, all these matters were first written down 200 years ago, but they are more profoundly true now than they were then.

Depending on the exact context when I make these statements, they can be taken as quite controversial, or trite. It may because they are not solutions to the questions human beings ask of themselves but rather because they are problems that they make for themselves. Of course, I take culture to be both solution and problem. As my colleague Ray McDermott of Stanford University and I wrote in a recent paper, culture is not only the genius of a people, it is also the way it disables its peoples. And thus the people who finds in their way the objects that constitutes this culture will contest and reconstruct it in a continuing dialogical process without possible conclusion.


March 7, 2001