So far as the institution for which he labored is concerned–namely, a public school system supported by public taxation and open to all children, training schools for teachers, and so on–the dream of Horace Mann ... has in the passage of a hundred years been realized to a surprising degree. But the problem ... is still with us. We have now the institutions which he strove to bring into being. But we still have with us, and perhaps in an even more urgent and difficult way, the problem of how this institution is to be made to serve the needs of democratic society. (Dewey [1937] 1958: 46)

In the first lecture, I presented a view of culture as a dialogical process producing concrete objects. I used the metaphor of the house built on a landscape for human beings to inhabit. In the second lecture, I extended the metaphor to emphasize the complex activities around the building, repairing and rebuilding of this house. Over the centuries, this process produced a particularity in human history: "American" education. It would of course be more evocative to think of this object as a city with its many buildings and institutions, and particularly its schools. This city embodies in its very organization a set of properties that, in the long run, constrain action in the United States, particularly on the most public stages. Furthermore, collective action acknowledging these constraints end up reconstituting them for future generations.

Those who know the history of the United States will recognize that my talk of America as city is a deliberate echo of the use the classical Biblical image of the "city upon a hill" that was appropriated by American Protestant utopians to give a messianic tone to their visions. In my own appropriation of the image, China, India, the Muslim world, all also stand as "cities upon hills," unavoidable to all who approach them. This is not a return to the 19th century "orientalism" Said criticized. Rather it is an acknowledgement of the ideological, as well as commercial and military, power of America (and of course China, India, etc.) outside its boundaries as well as inside.

I also made the point that these properties are best revealed at moments of controversies when boundaries are tested and institutions are reconstructed because they can no longer quite stand exactly as they were before. And I made the point that when talking about America and American education I am not referring mostly to psychological processes involving knowledge or values. Rather I am referring to institutions with long histories that have radically transformed what human beings in the United States, and now around the world, have to deal with. In this last lecture I continue to focus on controversies to discern more clearly the sometimes fateful consequences of these properties as they both enable and disable possibilities for human beings.

To summarize briefly, the strongest properties of America involve matters such as:

• the primacy of the individual–institutionalized in such things as tests to determine the exact qualities of the person, intellectually or emotionally;
• the view of society as community of like-minded individuals–institutionalized in all sorts of programs to build particular kinds of persons;
• the understanding that this requires specific activities–institutionalized in complex schools organized around intellectual and emotional curricula.

Depending on how I present this argument, I will be accused, in an American context, particularly within the discipline of anthropology, of "substantializing" America. For the critics, to do so would make us lose sight both of the made-up character of America and of the multiplicity of Americas co-existing within the boundaries of the United States. To these criticisms, I answer that I take more seriously than most the principle that human beings are indeed at work constructing their world in uncertainty and controversy. I also take most seriously the fact that, if this is the case, then there must be some remnants of this work that new comers cannot ignore. To emphasize as I do the concreteness of this historical work is not to de-emphasize multiplicity. On the contrary it allows for a more complex understanding of multiplicity and unity. An emphasis on America as institution allows one to point at all the open spaces for special constructions. It also allows to insist that persons are not determined by their encounters with the more massive cultural objects they find on their way.

Most of my work has been a reaction against a particular way of talking about culture that even the most vocal critics of cultural analyses continue using matter-of-factly. Note that I never talked about "Americans" because I fear that, to do so is to postulate more or less explicitly a uniformity of mind among the population of the United States that is unwarranted methodologically as well as theoretically: After all I do not know most Americans and do not trust any of the methodologies–even the statistical ones that might produce statements like "90% of Americans believe in God." Thus, I fight any view of culture that collapse the products of history into personal agents with specifiable attitudes or beliefs learned early in life or developed at a later stage. I do so to emphasize the distinctiveness of what local populations can build over centuries as it gets to stand against what other populations build. I do so to emphasize the productivity of people with their cultural environment, their resistance to it, their appropriation of some of it, their successes in carving spaces when some constraints fail to apply, and so on an so forth. America is powerful but it is not overwhelming internally.

Let us go back briefly to my metaphor of America as a city built up in controversy over many centuries. Once, the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss wrote about culture as a "palace carried by a flood with its parts reorganized by new stresses no architect could have anticipated" (paraphrase [1962] 1966: ). I also like a poem by the American poet Robert Frost puzzling about the need to reconstruct arbitrary walls. As Frost puts it "Something there is that doesn't love a wall." All cultural constructions, from walls between neighboring properties to schools, are shaky. They are in need of continual reconstruction. In this lecture I focus on "what there is that does not love a culture," that is on the stresses that continue to threaten what has been constructed so far and might eventually lead to its collapse. I will do this from two points of view. First, I will start with difficulties that are specifically identified by dominant or emergent political voices. Second, I will move on to point at stresses that are the direct product of the very shape of the overall building. These are stresses that could not be relieved without pulling the whole down and, in the process, tearing apart much that is indeed very good. These structural stresses are particularly visible in institutionalized education and they cannot be ignored. But we cannot ignore either the beauty or wisdom of what these stresses allow. Culture does disable in particular ways. But it also enables in the very same ways. There lies a potential for drama if not tragedy of which we have many examples in the actual history of the United States. For all who deal with America, there is no escaping what might be approached as an internal contradiction that is also a creative tension keeping the civilization alive.


America has produced strong critiques of itself based on self-interpretations that, over the course of its history have had strong institutional impact. These continue to be debated, often passionately, among those with the most authority to rebuild its institutions whether directly through political action, or indirectly through ideological action. I will only mention a few that have had distinct impacts on American education.

local self-determination by communities and parents: its value and necessary limits;
• the apparent failures of schools to teach what is needed to compete internationally;
• the integration of new immigrants;

the continued segmentation of all aspects of human society along racial or quasi-racial lines;
Let us start with one of the more classical self-interpreted worries. When America was still in the early stages of its building, Jefferson wondered whether large, industrial, cities were compatible with the realization of democracy as local self-determination. In many ways the problem is now moot. Most of the population of the United States lives in such urban centers and find themselves very far removed from the day to day government of their towns, cities or states. Above all, through a particularly bloody civil war and its aftermaths, it became established that there are significant boundaries limiting local self-determination: no American state can allow slavery or segregation within its boundaries. Neither can it allow a host of other matters. America, as sovereign within the territories of the United States, continues to affirm itself against personal beliefs if those seek to transform themselves from speech (which is protected) into action (which it subject to review). Jefferson himself worked to establish this understanding of American democracy. And yet, to this day, there are renewed calls to allow for local self-determination, whether at the "State" level (this is generally considered a "conservative" position) or at the sub-group level (this is generally considered a "liberal" position if the group is presented as an ethnic or minority one). It is not quite a matter of chance that so many large governmental agencies should be referred to as "community" matters–for example "community school boards" in New York City that were the product of what was known in the 1960s as "decentralization." The power of such words suggests a nostalgia for a society of small self-determining groups. The theme of self-determination may be most useful at this point in discussions of school "vouchers" as a means a letting parents decide what schools their children should attend. This has put new fire in the alternative theme that all Americans must operate by the same rules determined by the political centers.

I will only mention in passing the perennial worries in America about whether its internal processes produce an adequate level of skill in its children. For many generations, the American media, political and intellectual elite, and those who take them on, have worried that in one way or another, America did not measure up to any number of others (Russia, Japan, China, India, etc.). These debates, in many ways, echo those about the implication of the continual reconstruction of America as a land where new people keep on arriving and settling in. For the sake of brevity, I will spend more time on these matters, focusing again on continuing controversies over what policies to adopt to deal with those who have not been acknowledged as part of the development of America and appear to the dominant elites as "problems." I have talked at some length in the second lecture about immigrants to the United States at the end of the 19th century triggering a reconstitution of the democratic public school along "progressive" lines. By the late 20th century immigrants from new parts of the world reopened the debate about the exact shape of the schools, and this new movement of population would have been enough to trigger a new reconstitution of the school. But the main issues of the past 50 years have centered on the political reinterpretation of the place of marginalized populations in the schools, particularly Blacks, Mexicans in the South West, or American Indians. Starting with the Supreme Court declaring school segregation unconstitutional in Brown vs. Board of Education, all aspects of American schooling had to reconstitute itself in a different political climate. For any number of reasons, by the 70s and 80s it was agreed by most (but certainly not all) in the elites, that this reconstruction should proceed through a reconstitution of "difference" not as something to be erased in the building of American selves, but rather as something to be celebrated, and then subsumed in a general agreement to live in mutual respect of these differences (Banks 1996). In this model, America is to be "multicultural" in the same way perhaps as Jefferson insisted that it be multi-denominational: no national religion, no national language, no national "culture."

The issue of language is particularly contentious. Thus, we have people arguing, on the language side, that it is best for immigrants to learn English as soon as possible so that they can fully enter the labor force. This is often the position of the migrants themselves except perhaps when they are very numerous from any one country and congregated in one place where they can eke a living even by continuing to use their old language. The Chinese were notorious for maintaining their language as they formed into "Chinatowns." Spanish speakers have been the flashpoint since the 1960s when some of their leaders were successful in getting laws passed requiring, on technical pedagogical grounds, that their children should be educated in Spanish. In the past five years the other argument has been powerfully reintroduced. On various other technical grounds it can be said that bilingual education, as it was implemented in most large school systems, do not easily produce good English speakers. Some argue about the validity of these studies, but all know, eventually, that the issue is an ideological one: is America a neutral ground within which small groups can self-constitute in the privacy of their own covenants? Or, is America a particular ground requiring particular kinds of people educated in particular ways?

In the long run however, the more significant self-critique centers on the propriety of the distinctions among human beings that were inherited by early America from Europe. Many of the other matters I have mentioned appear to yield to reformist moves. Not so the matters where the identification of individuals as somehow "different" interact with the social rewards to give them, a process in which the schools are thoroughly implicated. In the early years, matters of class and race were plausibly most salient. These have remained, along with matters of gender, disability status, etc, that raise the same fundamental questions about the legitimacy of difference in initial identification and social recognition through schooling and employment.

Structural contradictions

It is with some trepidation that I move on to this discussion of what I consider to be the structural contradictions that the self-critiques I just summarized in fact reconstitute. To try to capture America in an epigram, I would say that America is where the individual is text and the community context. If so, then everything that is social must be mediated through psychological processes. To this day it makes sense in America to say that, given any conflict, the solution must proceed through a change in "the mind and hearts" of the people involved. This formulation was at the core of American propaganda during the Vietnam war and it was intended to represent the ideological goal for the war. There is every evidence that those who supported the war, and those who opposed it, accepted this formula as uniquely meaningful. And it remains a powerful guide for policy, particularly in the context of the more divisive troubles–perhaps more notably on issues of race: To achieve the American utopia, one must first change the minds and hearts of people and this must be the first principle of all enlightened policy. Race, in this perspective, has to do with racism and the best ways to deal with racism involve a personal change, best achieved through education and, most fatefully, the schools. Indeed we could see the whole development of the School as the dominant institution that it has become as the secondary institutional effect of this idea: Citizens (individuals in a democracy) must be personally developed for the political system to work as designed. In this manner the physical dominance of the community school that I mentioned in my first lecture is indeed indicative of its structural place: No Democracy without a School, and, more specifically, no Democracy without schools dedicated to shaping minds and hearts.

This statement, and its embodiment in massive institutions, is one of the glories of America in that it has enabled millions of people over the generations to achieve personal lives that they would never have been able to achieve otherwise. It has also enabled the development of new knowledge and technologies that might not have been developed otherwise. It is also profoundly disabling in particular ways that represent the fundamental dilemma inscribed at the roots of America. The starkest version of this argument was made by a French anthropologist, Louis Dumont, as he tried to explain the Indian caste system to a Euro-American audience (1970 [1966]). On the American side he tried to understand why, until the Civil War at least, America continually produced theories that branded slaves as less than human. There have been slaves throughout world history, and only the most determined efforts by international agencies prevent the practice from coming back. But America is distinctive in its concern with trying to justify the status of slave as having something to do with the inner constitution of the slave as person. This was most infamously written into the original American constitution as the 3/5 theory of slavery: slaves in the Southern States would be counted as 3/5 of human beings for census purposes. Throughout the 19th century, and in fact to this day, the social placement of Africans at the bottom of the social hierarchy in the United States was justified on the grounds that Africans were not, in a fundamental way, the human equal of other humans. Most starkly, if all human beings were created equal, but some appear so obviously unequal, then it must be because they are not quite as human as they appear.

Very few people in the United States at this point dare write about human inequality in this manner--though it continues to happen and to be well-received in some circles (The Bell Curve Herrnstein & Murray, New York: The Free Press, 1994). However, in the 150 years since slavery was abolished and the formal humanity of the slaves was recognized, there has been an ever renewed effort to explain away social inequalities as somehow produced, or least mediated, by matters of personal constitution. In several of our papers, Ray McDermott and I have argued that there is something radically misleading in all explanations of school failure because they proceed as if what is an institutionally sanctioned event were a purely psychological event at the moment when the failure is noticed and acted upon. In the perspective we criticize, if someone fails a test, it has to do with some flaw in the person taking the test–and not with the criteria used by the person grading the test and not with the institutions requiring the test. If someone spends his life in a working class occupation, it must have to do with the fact that he failed, or dropped out of school–and not with the fact that his practical conditions made it necessary for him to start working early. There are profound disagreements about the exact mechanism of the psychological mediation. With recent advances in genetics there is a return to biology even though it is most closely related to classical racism. Most common at this point is the emphasis on social environmental determination through the transformation of the self (malnutrition, lack of an intellectual atmosphere in early childhood, etc.). Quite popular over the past 30 years has been emphases on the "cultural" environment (through the "learning" of different interactional patterns that cannot be easily unlearned). Curing these problems may involve all sorts of reformist solutions (genetic manipulation, food distribution, improvement in access to medical resources, earlier schooling, programs to reeducate teachers, etc.) but looking at these solutions reveal again the movement back to individuals reconstituted as the carrier to their social difficulties. Noone in America wants to be accused of "blaming the victim" of social difficulties, but the easier explanations to convey, and the easier ones to transform into policy always refocus attention on the victim.

This must be mentioned here since, as the 20th century has progressed the School has become more and more directly implicated in identifying and justifying distinctions and identifications with major impacts on the lives of all in the United States. To use a stark example, IQ measurements started as a research tool. Soon after, most researchers lost interest as cognitive psychology, whether in the traditions of Piaget or Vigotsky moved on to other more complex approaches. But IQ testing perdured in schools as it, in barely altered forms, continue to provide the legitimizing basis of the segregation that proceeds through the school. There is good reasons for this: All histories of IQ tests, and myriad others, point to their initial identification as a tool of democracy that would finally allow true, basic and authentic merit to shine through the privileges of birth. Aptitude testing was a tool that could be held independent from the prejudices of teachers and administrators. This testing would settle who is more meritorious and the social problem of unjust segregation would be resolved. It took a very long time for people to recognize that IQ tests (and endless variations on the original tests) were not quite blind to the categorical properties of individuals: whites often did better than blacks, but the differences disappeared if social conditions were taken into account. By the 1970s at least a strong critique of all forms of testing as necessarily insidious was developed but it mostly produced a continuing recasting of the tests–not a recasting of the cultural structures that make tests commonsensical. It is has if, to this day, the American dilemma would be resolved if it could be shown that members of all groups, however they were defined, failed (and succeeded) equally.
Perhaps most invidious was the development of alternative explanations for individual difference in performance that did focus on social and cultural contexts but only as determining context. I have been most interested in theories of difference that refer one back to "culture" or "habitus" since they are closest to my disciplinary background and I see it as my personal responsibility to attack them directly. In their simplest forms, this theory proposes that much identified failure in schools was the product of personal mistmatches between the interactional styles of teachers and students, styles that they would have learned in "their" culture (Heath 1983). In their most complex forms, this theory proposes that social differentiation can only be successful if the people at the bottom get specifically convinced, in institutions that they cannot challenge–particularly the School--, that their position is legitimate and thus that they have no grounds for complaint (Bourdieu and Passeron [1970] 1977). In both cases social differentiation is mediated by a psychological process or learning or internalization that is both cause and effect. One American cliche is particularly insidious. It states that "all societies are made of individuals." If this were true, it would follow that all social differentiations must have roots in the individuals of the society, whether as perpetrator or victim. But this does not follow: social differentiations are the production of particular collective histories.

Cultural psychological theories have become so successful in educational circles that they all but displaced purely psychological theories, particularly the cognitive ones that have been building on Thorndike's work. And yet they continue to push to the side any analysis, and then any policy development, that would recognize that the social differentiation characteristic of large (post-)industrial societies have little to do with personal qualities. Slavery, most now agree, was not the product of the inferiority of Africans. Rather it was the product of the organization of the agricultural system developed in the South of the United States, and its end coincided with the shift from a rural to an industrial infrastructure. This is the very industrial, or post-industrial, system that continues to produce different positions for human beings to inhabit (from the position of janitor to the position of president). What America adds to this is particular system for recruiting people into the various positions. This is a system that places a particular kind of school as the preeminent credentialing institution. In America, the "people" gives the School the right to grant degrees to which "privileges" are attached–as an inscription at the very top of Columbia University's central building remind all who work there. And at the core of the School stands the Test that identifies and discriminates. All these matters are institutional matters. They are cultural matters in my sense.

The Reconstitution of American Democracy

I do not want to end these lectures on a pessimistic note, nor even a realist note. The concern of America with the individual as constituted in the School can be shown as specifically disabling human beings in all sorts of insidious way. And yet institutionalized concern with the individual, particularly as constituted through the School, also enables human beings in particularly powerful ways. From Horace Mann to John Dewey, to even the most ascerbic critics of the implementation of progressive education, there is a unanimity that I refuse to represent as misunderstanding or worse. Mann, Dewey and all the others are not the more or less unwitting tools of the ruling classes. If we, like them, are to take the position of the constructing critics, then we must recognize the legitimacy of their own efforts to build particular institutions. Even if there is evidence that old elites somehow coopted their efforts, it would be more coherent to see this cooptation as specific work by these elites made necessary by the work of the critics in a dialogical process that noone can directly control.

Anthropologists from America looking at the rest of the world have kept making the point that there is beauty and wisdom everywhere and all can learn from all even when, often, there is no way that a local collectivity could try adopt what it is that some other collectivity, "over there" in some geographical or historical distance, are doing–if only because it can offend justifiably held values or radically disrupt fundamental institutions. As a native of France who first discovered America from afar, I remember the time when I saw it, not so naively, as beautiful. At this point in my life, I would say that it continues to inspire awe–a word that, in English, indexes both amazement and danger: what inspires awe can be also be "awful." There is something awe-inspiring at the idea of placing at the core of one's political institutions the School, as a place, run authoritatively by intellectual (rather than commercial, bureaucratic, or religious) forces, that all children must inhabit for many years of their lives. This experiment in human possibilities continues to be overwhelmingly appealing, and not only within the boundaries of the United States.

And yet, of course the paradox remains. The democratic ideology that has been so successful in so many ways is exactly the same ideology that constitutes what remains its core failure. In the context of schooling, as it is experienced in and out of schools, in the details of everybody's everyday life in the United States, my colleague Ray McDermott and I proposed that, in order to help individuals one should not look at them but rather at the mechanisms that makes them stand out as special–whether positively or not (Varenne and McDermott 1998). This is a hard thing to say in America–analytically as well as personally. To turn away from the individual, even if only for research purposes, will appear, within America, as a scandal. And yet, every time I reread John Dewey's "Pedagogical Creed," I flinch when I come to the sentence "I believe that the only true education comes through the stimulation of the child's powers by the demands of the social situations in which he finds himself" because it draws my attention to the "child's powers" to be "stimulated." To place the child at the core of education is awesome, just as placing the individual at the core of society was awesome when Jefferson wrote it. It is also awful when it makes it commonsensical to make the child in school, or the individual in society, the carrier of his own position within the society.

At this point, I stop, because, after all, I am caught by the America that has been constructed over the past centuries. Displacing the individual from the institutional core is something that I cannot even propose: after all, my critique is itself founded on the fear that America is dangerous to individuals– and thereby I have replaced the individual at the core! It may be, optimistically, that the paradox I have been exploring is not so much a contradiction as it is the very life force that keeps America moving as its people explore new institutional ways to inscribe individualism and community on the global landscape. In any event, America is here to stay in all our futures, not only the future of my children in the United States, but also the future of all around the globe, in China, India, Africa. It will remain powerful as another way to being human that will all human beings who learn about it, and will stand in the way of even those who will continue searching for other ways. Of course, I am not thinking here solely about economic, technological or military power. I am thinking specifically about the ideological power that overwhelmed earlier political ideologies in Europe and, later, arguably, in Russia and perhaps even in China. Many, over the centuries, starting with the French aristocrat de Tocqueville feared this power, or regretted what it was sweeping away. Personally, I have not been sorry that I was placed by the hazard of my personal history within the system, and indeed quite close to its core. I have, obviously, been moving into the position of the internal critic. But I take this position with all the respect due to something much larger than myself that I continue to admire. I will not dissociate myself from the goals of individual self-expression through consensual communities and their schools. This experiment, America, has not run its course.

March 7, 2001