“Remember, you may have more instruction than I have, but you are not more educated.”
(Varenne’s grandmother, who left school at the 6th grade, circa 1917, on the occasion of his Ph.D.)


We must challenge the common postulate in educational research that what is most important about human beings is what they have learned in their past as it contributes to, or interferes with, what they will do in their future. Human beings are better postulated to be continually learning as their new present makes useless accumulated knowledge. They are better postulated working hard at overcoming this ignorance rather than coasting comfortably with old wisdom. They are better postulated as teaching themselves and all the others they can reach, continuously and ubiquitously throughout their lives. What is needed to account for humanity is not a theory of learning, but a theory of education as the never achieved search for enlightenment.

This paper introduces the ten papers and two commentary essays that compose this special issue of the Teachers College Record. Together, they aim to illustrate the usefulness of shifting the attention of educators, whether in research or practice, from worrying about the past of those under their care to acknowledging the future work that they will perform with what we will have told them.

In this paper, I build on the historian Lawrence Cremin’s struggle to find a principled method to decide what to include in a history “of education.” This struggle culminated in his definition of education “as the deliberate, systematic, and sustained effort to transmit, evoke, or acquire knowledge, attitudes, values, skills, or sensibilities, and any learning that results from the effort, direct or indirect, intended or unintended.” This definition has had limited impact. More than a quarter century later, research “in education” remains mostly research in and about schools. Sometimes this research addresses occasional learning outside of schools, though mostly as a variable in the distribution of schooling outcomes. It is very rarely about what humanists have always deemed most educational–the continued efforts to deal with new conditions, including available schooling. Research in education is rarely about the evolution of political ideologies, the shaping of religious fervor, the development of artistic predilections in music or dance. It is rarely about the efforts of young parents to figure out what their newborns might need, or the efforts of older parents to settle where to live so that their children might go to “better” schools. It is even more rarely about the enslaved teaching themselves how to read, about the very poor trying to figure out what literacy programs can do for them, about how idealists find out that they cannot escape the racist talk they are dedicated to transform. And yet, I argue in this paper, the moments when one finds oneself in a difficult situation and then proceeds to struggle are the preeminently educational moments on which research in education should focus.

This list of what research in education should also be about includes matters addressed by the ethnographic papers included in this special issue of the Teachers College Record. These papers provide the empirical evidence that Cremin’s was a powerful intuition. My own paper argues that various advances in social theory make Cremin’s definition more plausible than it was when it appeared. Harold Garfinkel’s ethnomethodology, together with Jean Lave’s analyses of learning as a matter of shifting positions within fields for participation, provide theoretical justification for the use of words like “deliberate,” “systematic,” and “sustained effort.” When one adds to this foundation the more philosophical works of Michel de Certeau or Jacques Rancière criticizing Bourdieu or Foucault, one has at one’s disposal a robust set of tools that can recast the framework of research in education so that it encompasses schooling as but one contested means for controlling what children (and their parents) will be known as knowing.

I make this argument about education as an anthropologist who insists, as anthropologists have always done, that close attention must be paid to what human beings actually do, together, in their everyday lives, as well as during the extraordinary moments when they set the overall conditions of their everyday lives. The papers included in the special issue constitute a body of work illustrating that, wherever ethnographers look, they can show human beings actively questioning their conditions and producing new conditions which then become material for new activity. They can also document how this new activity can destroy what earlier activity has produced, with sometimes dire consequences for those who attempted the transformation. A theory of education must deal with all aspects of this activity in the real time during which it takes place.

It can be difficult for theories of education not to collapse into theories of enculturation, socialization, or the early development of “dispositions,” particularly when both psychologists and critical social scientists continue to postulate that human beings, as individuals, are always the about completed product of their historical experiences or of “their culture”–as it is most often put in educational research. This postulate has appeared to provide good explanations for a host of troubles in classrooms and schools and is the foundation for what passes for “multiculturalism.” A powerful version of the same postulate can be found in Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of habitus which he defines as “dispositions inculcated in the earliest years of life.” This definition, for all intents and purposes, reproduces much theorizing about the relationship between learning and sociability in psychology, culture and personality, or Parsonian structural-functionalism. In recent years, many have tried to separate themselves from such discourses of culture. These discourses, we should now know, always produce accounts of overwhelmed people subject to “cultures of poverty” they carry within themselves. Often unwittingly, and often by authors who are sincere in their wish to escape such discourse, the people of focus are made again into “cultural dopes” who are all but brainwashed by the powerful people around them.

I argue, however, that one must start with the reverse postulate. People do not know so much that it limits their activity. Rather people have to face again and again the fact that they have to deal with, in their new present, something they never quite faced before. They have to face that they have been made ignorant again and, again, must work at finding out what, in their new conditions they can use to move on. I present this ignorance as a generative, resistant, and productive state that leads people to explore their current conditions marshal resources, and, in many different ways, deliberately attempt to change the conditions. I insist that people always do this collectively with those who help them as well as with those who stand in their way. This ignorance is the motor of cultural production to the very extent that it is a historical process that produces new historical conditions, locally, as well as nationally or globally. The process cannot end since every act produces new conditions and thus new forms of ignorance among those affected by it.

There are good political reasons why work by social scientists said to be “on education” is mostly about schools. But ignoring families, college dorms, hospitals and the like has a price, even if one is mostly concerned with the organization of schooling as an optimistic means of “building a democratic polity.” Schools, like hospitals or churches, are the temporary product of broader educational processes that produce ongoing critiques of schooling that are all the more virulent where the School is most institutionalized. Paradoxically perhaps, it is the evolving popular knowledge about schooling that is most faintly captured by the expert focus on the internal processes of schooling: Where are people in the United States learning about vouchers? intelligent design? the value of testing? Where do they learn about new technologies? And where do people outside the United States learn about “America”? Understanding the educational work of all people everywhere will help us write more respectful accounts of their lives. It will also help us to place school reform proposals as statements within the difficult collective deliberations that are precisely occasions when a national polity educates itself about its schools, their authority, and the limits on this authority. However total or hegemonic an institution may be, it cannot stop those who cannot escape it from discussing among themselves what it is and what can be done with it. It cannot stop changing to respond to these challenges. There is really no better word for this complex and never-ending process than the word education.