(these are early drafts by Varenne of the proposal on which the project is based)

They were planned in the summer 2006 and writen in the Fall 2006.

That the poor do not do as well in school as the more prosperous is an old observation. That this should be changed is obvious. That the role of the social scientists is to provide guidance to policy makers through careful analysis of what might be the causes of what is now known as the “achievement gap” is common sense. That analyses of the gap that emphasize what is wrong with poor are unlikely to be helpful is something most agree with–in principle but not in most social scientific practice. Struggling to change this practice is what we must continue to do by focusing again on what is “right” with the poor, that is with what they do, productively, about their conditions.

This project is dedicated to exploring within as broad a framework as possible when, where, with whom, and in what terms, the urban poor express their situation in speech and action. We focus on their work at transforming their actual situations on the basis of this understanding. In other words, we explore the education that the urban poor give each other and to do so with the reverse postulate than is usually used: I propose we postulate that the poor do educate themselves, that this education is finely attuned to their conditions, that it helps with survival within local conditions, and that it is continually renewed as conditions change–including those produced by earlier educational efforts. Obviously, this education will not be formalized or institutionalized. Indeed it will often be about formal and institutional forms that claim to be specifically educational–particularly schools and equivalent state-sponsored programs. There is already enough evidence of the reality of such everyday education to make a determined search a plausible task.

Practically, we are conducting an educational ethnography of an urban neighborhood with a tradition of poverty. This ethnography approaches the neighborhood as a stage for a multiplicity of settings where people talk to each other about their conditions, plan their life on the basis of what they are finding out about their conditions, and reflect about earlier plans. On the basis of much earlier research, social scientists know that many such conversations take place in churches, street corners, families, etc., as well as in schools, welfare offices, clinics, etc. We know that various other expressive forms can mediate the people’s own forms: popular music and movies, newspapers, politicians, the internet, etc., all propose analyses of the real, the possible, and the utopian, that are then themselves discussed, reinterpreted, and re-expressed. What we do not quite know, or at least not in a form we can quite use for reformist purposes, is the exact processes and consequences of this activity. It is time to go back to an urban neighborhood and, guided by the earlier work, investigate more carefully the many settings for education one will find there, the particular expressive forms available there (including matters like conversational styles, participatory structures, vocabularies), the particular forms of local authority (including matters of gender, age, status), the particular interfaces between the people and state institutions (including school, health care, welfare personnel).




This is a proposal for the first step in a larger project exploring settings for education in an inner city neighborhood. This step will focus on institutional settings. their leaders, and the overall properties of the programs they deem “educational.” The techniques used will consist mostly of observations in public settings, interviews with adults who have responsibilities for the programs, and brief visits to the settings where the programs are conducted. The research is to start and January 2007 and should be completed by the end of the summer 2007.

This research builds on recent work by Hervé Varenne (forth) and colleagues intended to refocus research in education by refining the definition of what is to count as education beyond the distinctions usually made between the “formal” and the “informal,” or learning “in” school vs. learning “outside” of school. While it is easy to say that education is much more than school learning, most research in the social sciences “of education” have ended being conducted in schools or, more invidiously, in the terms set by schooling. This has led, among other things, to an emphasis on explanations of school success/failure which end up reconstructing deficit models–even when the intention of the research is precisely to move beyond such models (Varenne and McDermott 1998). Our overall goal is to recast educational research so that it encompasses schooling as just one form, rather than be encompassed by it. Identifying what, among all that happens in families and communities, helps or hinders school performance may be a useful task—even if it risks labeling again some families and communities as “lacking” that which others have. But even if the risk is worth taking, we are left with little understanding of what families and communities do that is both fundamentally educational and altogether independent from school strictures. We are thinking of such matters as education into religion, political ideology, discourses about social and economic conditions, the popular arts, and indeed schooling itself as an object of knowledge and activity for families, local groups, and leaders who, through their political activities actually constitute the school and what can happen there.

Our goal is to explore the life of people in an inner city neighborhood to highlight what is being done that is arguably educational. We start with the postulate that people, everywhere, unceasingly, and always in concert with others, work at changing themselves and their consociates through often difficult deliberations. This is the deliberate and deliberative work in which we recognize education to the extent that it involves the discovery of particular forms of ignorance, various searches for getting knowledge, for identifying further ignorance in oneself and others, for teaching. In this perspective, the concern is less the outcome of education (what has been learned) than the process of education (what is being learned). In this perspective, what is to remain most salient is the interaction among the people involved in the activity, the organization of this interaction, and the evolution of this organization as people discover the consequences of earlier moves.

In Lawrence Cremin’s first approximations of the overall postulate about the ubiquity of education and its peculiarly “deliberate” aspects (1974), he wrote about education happening in many “institutions” beyond the school (churches, the media, clubs, etc.). In our current approximation, we emphasize “settings” and “occasions” when members of a collectivity discuss their conditions and attempt to transform each other (through teaching, preaching, persuading, explaining, justifying, etc.). Such a collectivity can be as small as two people arguing, a “family,” or wider groupings where people are brought together, willingly or not, and end up working at transforming each other. These “communities of practice” (Lave and Wenger 1991), as they have been called in recent social scientific writings, are ubiquitous in the everyday life of all human beings. They are the occasions when personal lives are built with the resources made available, and also when personal lives are limited by the barriers others often place on personal development.

Our intention is to report on the extent of the activities of people in an inner city neighborhood as they educate themselves about their conditions and what they can do about it. Against much theorizing that people in oppressed situations are blinded by the forces that legitimize the mechanisms that constitute this oppression (Bourdieu and Passeron 1977/1970), we are convinced on the basis of preliminary research and much theorizing (de Certeau 1980/1984; Garfinkel 2002; Rancière 1991/1999) that a different way of looking at familiar experiences will reveal complex forms of practical understandings that are not usually well documented. Where others have seen deficits, or even sometimes searched for them, we will be looking for forms of knowledge and, most importantly, forms of seeking new and more powerful knowledge–that is forms of education.

We envision this project as a long term one that will eventually take us into families, businesses, groups of friends, etc. At this stage we will focus solely on non-school but institutionalized settings such as churches, mosques, clubs, after-school and social welfare programs, where groups get together to develop distinctly labeled and organized activities (Gordon et al 2005). Given what we expect to be the wide-spread use of the word “education” for what is done in these settings, we think it important to investigate the practical understandings of this word. We take this to be partially a matter of social cognition. But we also take it to be a matter of the social construction of activities, programs, etc. that imply various forms of political controls (who sets the curriculum and pedagogies to be used, who chooses students and teachers, etc.)


How do leaders of institutions in an inner city neighborhood talk about education? What do they do within their institutions that they consider educational? How do they talk about their resources? How do they talk about what hinders them?


We will be conducting a series of semi-structured interviews with up to two dozen leaders of such institutions as churches, mosques, temples or other faith-based institutions, as well as social welfare agencies, after-school programs and clubs. When appropriate we will collect detailed information about the programs (their organization, what populations they attempt to target, etc.). We will try to make brief visits to the program sites to get a further sense of what is involved. In parallel we will collect public information about the neighborhood from such sources as the census, the internet, newspapers, etc.

The interviews will be focused on three areas of concern:

1. The general mission of the institution and its organization

2. Its relationship to the neighborhood and the resources and difficulties the institution is facing;

3. Its educational programs if any, their curriculum, pedagogies, organization (staffing, funding, etc.)

The sample will a non-random theoretical sample drawn from a population the boundaries of which will be revealed through the research itself. We will start with a roughly 100 square block of a city area identified in earlier research as “inner-city.” We will identify within this area institutions (besides schools) that are known from earlier research as often sponsoring educational activities (from Sunday school to Scout troupes to HIV awareness sessions). By this definition, and on the basis of earlier research, we expect to identify dozens if not hundreds of such institutions. We will develop rough classifications of the institutions and will get a few interviews from each of the kinds. We expect to find institutions that we did not include in our population at first and will then sample from these if possible. Given our position as researchers from a powerful institution, we expect that some leaders will refuse to speak to us. This will not specifically weaken this specific study as conceptualized.


This stage of the research is to last eight months, from January through August 2007. We will initially ask the interviewees for two or three hours of their time for one or two interviews. If good rapport is established we will ask for their permission to observe some of their programs over a day or two.


The risks will be somewhat similar to those of being interviewed by journalists. There will be a risk of misrepresentation, though this will be mitigated by our efforts to maintain the confidentiality of the participants in our reports. There will no direct benefits to the participants as persons or to their institutions. We hope that our attempts to highlight the extent of the educational work by their overall community will constitute a real, though indirect, benefit.


We will not attempt to keep confidential the name of the city (New York) or neighborhood (Harlem) within which the research will be conducted. Given the overall context of the research, its funding, and its place within Teachers College, such an attempt would be futile. We will, of course, keep the identity of the participants and their institutions confidential to the research team. We will keep all field notes and other records in locked file cabinets and password protected computer directories. We will only report about individuals through vignettes and composites in which significant identifying details are changed.

Given the overall goal of the research, we imagine that some leaders from major neighborhood institutions may wish to be named. In this case we will give them the right to check the quotes we may use in our publications for accuracy. We also imagine the creation of a web site where some of the participants would be given the opportunity to respond to our analyses in their own voices. We will have a separate consent form for such cases.



Bourdieu, Pierre, and Jean-Claude Passeron (1977 /1970). Reproduction in education, society and culture. Tr. by R. Nice.. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.

Certeau, Michel de (1980/1984). The practice of everyday life. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Cremin, Lawrence (1974). Further notes toward a theory of education Notes on education. New York: Institute of Philosophy and Politics of Education. Teachers College, Columbia University.

Garfinkel, Harold (2002). Ethnomethodology's program: Working out Durkheim's aphorism. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Gordon, Edmund, W. Beatrice Bridlall and Aundra Saa Meroe, eds. (2005) Supplementary education. Lanham, MD: Rowman Littlefield.

Lave, Jean, and Etienne Wenger (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Rancière, Jacques (1991/1999). The ignorant schoolmaster: Five lessons in intellectual emancipation. Tr. by K. Ross. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Varenne, Hervé, and Ray McDermott (1998). Successful failure. Boulder, CO: Westview.

Varenne, Hervé (forth). Difficult Collective Deliberations: Anthropological Notes Towards a Theory of Education. Teachers College Record

Further references