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From John Dewey to an Anthropology of Education

by Ray McDermott & Jason Duque Raley - 2007

A commentary on the special issue.

Ever focused on the crisis du jour in the lives of children, the anthropology of education has had a muted sense of the past. To move forward, continuities uniting the field and discontinuities making it edgy and creative need to be reworked often. In the Introduction to this issue, Hervé Varenne recommends the writings of Lawrence Cremin, the historian of American education writ large, for a conception of education helpful to rethinking both early and future work in the anthropology of education. Of the ten ethnographic essays following Varenne’s overview, a few acknowledge Cremin’s tradition, but all conform, explicitly or not, to the good sense of Cremin’s culture-wide definition of education, whether in or beyond school, as any “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”1 (Cremin 1976: 27).

Cremin’s definition shares with any anthropology of contemporary education2 the understanding that most learning happens in homes, in neighborhoods, and at jobs, all informed by wide-ranging twentieth-century media, all well outside school and, given the narrow range of what is taught in schools around the world, fortunately so. It takes a whole culture of people to put together the narrow curriculum and mad expectations that present-day Americans use to stage, worry about, and interpret what happens in schools. Against that bad news, the ever hopeful Cremin pointed constantly to the relentless ingenuity of people, however poor, immigrant, or disenfranchised, to work the system, to learn what has to be learned, and to acquire (and here schools can be really helpful for both academics and the trades) the credentials that insure upward mobility.

This paper aligns the ethnographic essays in this issue with Cremin’s roots in the philosophy of John Dewey and reinforces the fledgling and never well developed ties between classic American thought and cultural anthropology.3 Dewey offers tools to critique mainstream 20th century anthropology and to articulate better its edges, and in turn we can use the ethnographic examples to enrich Dewey’s project.

Long before Cremin (and long after Ralph Waldo Emerson), Dewey urged two democratic positions. He argued first for a celebration of an intelligence created by all the people: “We lie, as Emerson said, in the lap of an immense intelligence” (Dewey, 1927b: 219). He argued second that collective wisdom, and not just the single genius (McDermott, 2006), is the achievement of a people educating each other: “A more intelligent state of social affairs, one more informed with knowledge, more directed by intelligence, would not improve original endowments one whit, but it would raise the level which the intelligence of all operates” (Dewey, 1927b: 210). A generation later, Cremin used Dewey’s spirit to fashion a history of American education that Varenne now recommends to the anthropology of education.4 Their shared point, from Emerson through Dewey and Cremin to Varenne is that the human situation is educative, and that every new moment is necessarily the next occasion for learning. When John McDermott edited Dewey’s writings, he chose the title, “Experience is pedagogical,” for the selections on education (1974: 421). Being always necessary, being always everywhere, education is ordinary in the best sense of the term.

A difficult but essential passage from Dewey states our theme. It addresses the impossibility of telling essential, eternal truths and urges the simultaneous importance of seeking as much truth as possible, particularly of the kind that makes a difference in the ordering of experience:

Denial of an inherent relation of mind to truth or fact for its own sake, apart from insight into what the fact or truth exacts of us in behavior and imposes upon us in joy and suffering; and simultaneous affirmation that devotion to fact, to truth, is a necessary moral demand involve no inconsistency (1929a: 52).

Anthropology, like classic American thought, makes truth a term for what people accomplish together given the constraints and affordances of their received situation, that is, given the constraints of history, culture, language, and economy. Truths exist by virtue of the detailed and nuanced work people do to make their world reliably consequential. Situated, contextual, and irremediably temporal and emergent, truths offer less a certain description of the world as tools for reengaging it, with others, over time, and in tune with hoped for outcomes—or at least in tune with a bearable mix of joy and suffering allowed by “the compulsion of circumstances.”5 Systematic inquiry into how people nurture conditions for telling the truth requires both the flexibility to see the world from multiple angles, from inside the nuanced work people do with each other, and a fierce, but not too constraining, commitment to doing it carefully, to getting it at least workably right. Whether in philosophy, ethnography, or education, inquiry requires a long engagement in the theory and practice of people making and undergoing their lives together.

For both Dewey and the anthropology of education, two issues stand out, simply, but with great effect: life is lived in time and with great intelligence. Rephrased, truths unfold in activities over time and in careful measure with their consequences for experience. The first disallows anything—any truth, object, or state of affairs—that stands still and alone, as if without relations to everything else of moment; the second celebrates the teaching and learning work of those arranging continuities in sequence and consequence in their own lives.6 Particularly before 1960, anthropologists often filled the world with static persons, here written statically: socialized, and trapped, in this status, that role, entrained, by a stable identity, and labeled, from a limited semantic pool, that sits immobile, in an economy, that mints the very coinage of the brain, that controls behavior, that makes the static roles—bummer of a treadmill. Culture was treated more as a determinate than a context, more as a curse than a situation (worse perhaps than a cursed situation), as if people lived neither in time nor with much intelligence. A richer approach shows people always struggling to make sense of their situation with often times difficult sources. Dewey describes a world more contingent and dramatic than most anthropologists have delivered. He redefines life and its mind—all that Lévi-Strauss (1961) called good to think: good to think about, think with, and think around—relentlessly and without relief in experiential terms, that is, in terms of what life “exacts of us in behavior and imposes upon us in joy and suffering” (Dewey, 1929a: 52).

In Experience and Nature, Dewey offers a discussion of keywords for an anthropology of live people: method, structure, communication, and knowledge, and we can use them as a frame for the discussion of the essays in this issue as examples of what Dewey and Cremin thought necessary.7 It is to Dewey’s point that similar distinctions and arguments are developed for each keyword. Structure, communication, and knowledge are all dimensions of the moment in which past and future are rewoven, and method is the word for the hope that we might weave well. Attention to any of them offers a different perspective on a single terrain, and for this reason, it is equally true that each ethnographic essay could serve more or less as an example in each section.


Method is a primary consideration for Dewey, and he starts on a methodological note perfectly applicable to the goals of most versions of ethnography:

 . . . the very meaning and purport of empirical method is that things are to be studied in their own account, so as to find out what is revealed when they are experienced (1929a: 2).

Truth, as though no better than the devil, is in the details and the consequences of how they get arranged. Empirical method does not give a researcher a right in advance to decide what counts in experience; things must be “studied in their own account,” in terms of how they play out and get interpreted as consequential.8 Empirical method stands for nothing but a promise to figure out as carefully as possible how to describe the consequences for experience of the play of things on the play of next things.

By data is signified subject-matter for further interpretation; something to be thought about . . . data signify “material to serve”; they are indications, evidence, signs, clues to and of something still to be reached; they are intermediate, not ultimate; means, not finalities (1929b: 80).

All ten papers claim to study things “in their own account,” announce the difficulty of doing so, and deliver layers of complication through which the reader can discover how things are not quite the way they had thought before the ethnographers did their work. Initial contact with the things about to be studied offer only, as Dewey said, “indications, evidence, signs, clues to and of something still to be reached.”

To the easy assumption that a late-in-life hearing loss is an easy condition to diagnose and often to remediate, Stratton shows how, in Sweden, despite an attentive and generous medical system, it can take years for a person to become an institutionally acknowledged Hard of Hearing person:

[Hard of Hearing] is a transformative, supremely educational arena in which continuous efforts are made by the state and medical institutions to make sure that hearing loss is noticed and people are redefined.

For one person to be treated as deaf takes a large number of handlers, all of them wondering what to do, how to do it, when, and with what consequence. By how they do their work, and by the consequences of their work, deafness can be redefined and redesigned. Diagnosis is a communal activity that must be understood in terms of the activities of all the participants—each “in their own account.”

Similarly, school failure in the United States has become more visible (and intractable) as it has become more measurable, or seemingly measurable. Whatever it might, as reported, have to do with grades, abilities, and disabilities, school failure is most of all a well organized semiotic show, a pageant as visible to the eyes and ears as verifiable on tests, and it extends far beyond the school (Seyer-Ochi, 2006; for the same game played out along ethnic borders, see Frake, 1998). One can visit thousands of schools across the country and find in each one, variable but well organized by race, class, and native language, a failing group of kids doing and saying pretty much the same things, dressing the same way, and listening to the same music and, even more importantly, their teachers, in turn, doing, saying, hand-wringing, and reluctantly recording the same things about them.  Without so many people following the ubiquitous instructions on how to look like a school failure, or, in the case of teachers, how to look worried about school failures, all of them, of course, “in their own account,” it is hard to imagine that the phenomenon of school failure could exist. Enter Mullooly’s account of a school in which failure becomes only a temporary state. What Coleridge once said of poverty could be well said about school failure:

Poverty, whatever can justify the designation of “the poor”, ought to be a transitional state to which no man ought to admit himself to belong, tho’ he may find himself in it because he is passing thro’ it, in the effort to leave it. Poor men we must always have, till the redemption is fulfilled, but The Poor, as consisting of the same Individuals! O this is a sore accusation against society (cited in Dean, 1992).

Now read the quote again, this time putting in “school failure” for “poverty.” Just the last line tells the whole story:

Individuals not learning this and that, or learning them too slowly, we must always have, till the redemption is fulfilled, but The Failing, The Disabled, The Deprived, The Different, The Stupid, The Deviant, The Misfit, as consisting of the same Individuals! O this is a sore accusation against society (cited in Dean, 1992; changed words in italics).

Without all of society constructing scenes, measures, counselors, and special classes for the display and permanent recording of failing individuals, the very phenomenon of school failure might not exist. There goes the Achievement Gap, likely replaced with a new myth of moment, for it is what schools, given current resources for teaching, grading and diagnosing, know what to do. So much does it depend on everyone working “in their own account” on failure, that some, fortunately, can refuse to participate—again “in their own account.” In Mullooly’s school, failure is treated as something a student, “tho’ . . .  in it,” tho’ dangerously in it, passes “thro’ it, in the effort to leave it.” The truth about school failure, much like the truth about hearing loss, depends on what people do with the ideas.  Labeling a person as a school failure is less a description of a child and a more a narrowing of the cultural resources that can be used to engage the child in next events (Varenne & McDermott, 1998). Mullooly shows it is a truth that can be changed.

Structure is an important term for Dewey. People who do things and arrange their consequences always have a well structured world to work with; they have an ecology, an economy, a history, a language, and all that built into a present. No matter how well structured the present, no matter how obvious and intrinsic things appear at first glance, the structure is always emergent, always in time, always in search of intelligent  connections, always laying in wait for what happens next:

 . . . all structure is structure of something; anything defined as structure is a character of events, not something intrinsic and per se. A set of traits is called structure, because of its limiting function in relation to other traits of events . . . Structure is constancy of means, of things used for consequences, not of things taken by themselves or absolutely (Dewey, 1929a: 72).

There is no time out for arranging consequences in advance of engagement, no place to stand apart. As both site and consequence of activities, structure is filled with agency. What Galileo said of the planet is true of its inhabitants: “E pur si muove.” There is no standing still. Time moves on and delivers new results.

Perhaps nothing is more constrained and tightly structured than the lives of slaves. And still they move, and they learn; under cover perhaps, and between the cracks—literally so if under the floorboards—they learn about living inside the structure that oppresses and outside that same structure, exactly outside, in ways that subvert. Dewey again: “Structure is constancy of means, of things used for consequences, not of things taken by themselves or absolutely (1929a: 72). In Gundaker’s powerful essay (see also Gundaker, 1998), when denied the right to read and write, and other forms of self-expression, American slaves learned nonetheless. Every structure builds its own cracks. The promise of literacy was as great as the punishments for acquiring it.

It is not the case that literacy, despite frequent claims to the contrary, is uniformly and on its own good for a people. It is definitely the case that in a state society, some people having literacy is really bad for people who do not read or write in prescribed ways (Street, 1985; Rockwell, 2005). Enter Bartlett’s account from Brazil of supposed illiterate adults who take themselves off to school to learn to read. Surrounded by accounts of what literacy can do for their brains and nation, the students see around the ideology and claim for themselves that they go to school most of all to make lateral connections for jobs and other opportunities. If the word, structure, implies relentless constraint, Brazilian social structure fits the bill, but still, the constraints imposed by illiteracy, or the more damaging results of claims for the superiority of literates over illiterates, are not imposed on dupes, but on people working hard to escape or transform the conditions of their lives together. If the “constancy of means, of things used for consequences, not of things taken by themselves or absolutely,” can be changed, so can the structure and its constraints.

Communication guides the work people do to maintain and transform the structure of their lives. Efforts to talk life over, to talk through structure, to address the hand dealt in experience, necessarily involve conversations about a world in flux and in a world in flux. Flux is ubiquitous not just because everything is constantly changing, but rather, as Gregory Bateson (1976: 51) once appended to Heraclites, because things are constantly changing in ways well organized. This is no less true for conversations than for rivers, the latter due to the dynamics of the ecosystems of which they are a part, the former due to the activities of people communicating with and about each other:

 . . . meaning is intent and intent is not personal in a private and exclusive sense . . . meaning is the acquisition of significance by things in their status in making possible and fulfilling shared cooperation . . . To perceive is to acknowledge unattained possibilities; it is to refer the present to consequences, apparition to issue, and thereby to behave in deference to the connections of events . . . the meaning of a thing is the sense that it makes . . . Language is always a form of action and in its instrumental use is always a means of concerted action for an end (Dewey 1929a, 180–184).

Stability is always an ongoing communicational accomplishment. Successful prediction offers no hiding place from the hard work it takes to make it possible. Prediction apprehends no pure past and no sure present, but reaches forward in search of connections, bonds, ways of making and remaking. Dewey’s lament:

. . . classic philosophy was conceived in wonder, born in leisure and bred in consummatory contemplation . . . The social division into a laboring class and a leisure class, between industry and esthetic contemplation, became a metaphysical division into things which are mere means and things which are ends (123–124).

Leisurely philosophy conceived communication without ties to tools and work, and, millennia of market expansion later, the upper classes have advanced from “consummatory contemplation” to crass consumption and class contempt. For Dewey and for anthropology, reality is better studied where it is happening: where the people are at work with each other.

Enter the studies by Adely and Johnson, showing that real people leading real, active lives are often already oriented to the same things we hope would orient an anthropology of education. Talking, dressing, singing, and dancing take more work than leisure. They are ritualized, staged communicative acts more than they are consummative. Their organization may be pre-formatted, but they are always available for interpretation and reinterpretation. Choices of language, dress, or music are worrisome because the results of the choices can be imagined, on the one hand, but impossible to foresee, on the other, and it is the most specific local consequences that matter the most, for they have to be accepted or contested in turn.

Adely shows that, in Jordan, girls faced with the choice to participate in school music activities worked to verify music as haram or hilal, that is, good, bad, good now but bad later, nationalist now but offensive later, and so on. The work demanded that they imagine both the contexts and consequences of their participation, from specifications of music, religion, and nation to intersections with other communicative acts, past and present.  In Thailand, Johnson found Hmong girls in a similar quandary. They were faced with choices for communicating “I” in Thai, and to do so they had to imagine whole situations of use, replete with histories of Hmong experience in Thai society. Choices of dress are no less communicative, no less consequential, and no less demanding. The question, What do I wear? confronts at least: economies of families, cities, and international commerce; enforcers of Hmong authenticity, ignorant and otherwise; and developing aesthetic sensibilities.

Thinking and knowing have similarly been defined by the leisure class as what people do before they act—as different from thinking and knowing as activities in their own right. By stranding and stockpiling thinking and knowing in an assumed out of time, out of place moment before activity—as if there were a timeout from life, from consequence—those in power were afforded a way of describing, diagnosing, and accusing those who do not act properly of thinking badly and knowing less, the better to not have to look carefully at the conditions under which the non-leisured others must behave. Dewey thinks of knowledge more in terms of embodied action:

Thinking and desiring, no matter how subjective, are a preliminary, tentative and inchoate mode of action. They are “overt” behavior of a communicated and public form in process of construction, and behavior involves change of objects which tests the meanings of animating behavior (1929a: 221).

Thinking and learning, like all tools, denote “a perception and acknowledgement of sequential bonds in nature” (123). As the adventure that carefully brackets prior conditions in ways that allow new discoveries, science is the neatest tool to inform experience:

 . . . in the practice of  science, knowledge is an affair of making sure, not of grasping antecedently given sureties. What is already known, what is accepted as truth, is of immense importance . . . but it is held subject to use, and is at the mercy of the discoveries which make it possible 9 (1929a: 154).

In Sabin’s intriguing account of the place of friendship and love in a college dormitory, knowledge is shown to be a thin ghost dragged from past experience to a more substantial instruction kit put together in ongoing, carefully attended conversations in which participants construct—and enforce—interpretations, grounds for interpretations, and tests for interpretations. James Joyce, who knew something of the play of culture around friendship and love, even in dormitories, caught the basic activity: knowledge means long discussions of “interpretations of interpretations interpreted” (cited in Fletcher, 2001: 262). Sabin’s strong conclusion that past individual learning about friendship and love must make its peace with new interpretations worked out in long conversations with friends—and this is what friends are for, what friends are—points us to where the action is, that is, to where the action is pedagogical. Dewey again: “Knowing is itself a mode of practical action and is the way of interaction by which other natural interactions become subject to direction” (1929b: 86).

What Sabin shows to be true for young women aligning themselves with the world of romance, Gershon shows to be true of large groups of minoritized people (indigenous Maori and immigrant Samoans in New Zealand) aligning themselves with the world of nation states. For Gershon’s performers, knowledge of how to be Maori or Samoan is always what Dewey calls “an affair of making sure,” sensitive to but never settled into any antecedently given sureties.10 Manutaki’s  performers may have organized the affair as more or less egalitarian, the Kelston Boys as more or less hierarchical. Manutaki’s indigenous critique may have been more direct, the Kelston Boys’ migrant critique more oblique. But for both groups, says Gershon, the stages are “arenas in which the nation and one’s relationship to the nation [are] written in bold, clear strokes,” the better for everyone to make sure with as much fanfare that can be gathered at the moment. These bold strokes are themselves one draft in a process of construction. Just as they are a revision of received versions of Maori or Samoan knowledge, they will themselves be revised and rewritten.


Of the remaining two ethnographic essays, the one by Lorimer explores the use of a cockpit exhibit at an aviation museum. Put together by educators to stimulate children to become pilots (or other prestigious things), it soon became isolated from the kids and a spectacle for adults from behind a glass sheet. Impressively complex, the cockpit became half altar and half IQ test for people explaining how much pilots must know and, in turn, how much visitors do not know. For many, the cockpit exhibit became a recognizable educational setting allowing—quietly, in the sense of without a follow-up test—more a recognition of personal ignorance than a celebration of what a community of engineers over many decades managed to cobble together. For a man who wanted to be a pilot but couldn’t because of life circumstances, the exhibit became an occasion for telling the story of his failure. To analyze the situation, Lorimer calls on the idea of alienation and stretches the discussion beyond Dewey and Cremin. No one would turn to either of them for guidance on alienation, and, for Cremin, theorists would be right to look elsewhere. Dewey, on the other hand, and Emerson and Varenne as well, might be a closer source than usually recognized. Actually all ten ethnographic essays could have been written in terms of alienation struggles—whether in the simplistic American sense of psychologically turned-off or the more complex, forceful Marxist sense of people being forced to work against themselves: being forced to increase production to build profit for others only (Marx, 1844), or being forced to study and display learning as an occasion for others to look smart (Lave & McDermott, 2002). Taking school to be the measure of learning rather than an occasion for learning is an alienation all too recognizable to American schoolchildren. It is an example of isolating objects “from the experience through which they are reached and in which they function.” This is the very situation of modern thought that Dewey set out to remediate;. It is an example of “the absurdity of an experiencing which experiences only itself, states and processes of consciousness, instead of the things of nature” (1929a: 11); and so too for things in interaction, things in emergent structures, things in the push and pull of communication and the ups and downs of knowledge. It is an example of alienation from one’s own engagement, from one’s own effort, from nature, from experience, from education, from learning, from democracy.

In the first paragraph of Art as Experience, Dewey complains about experience seen from inside a disconnected mind and body. He does not use the term alienation, but “ironic perversities” seems a workable substitute:

By one of the ironic perversities that often attend the course of affairs, the existence of works of art upon which the formation of an esthetic theory depends has become an obstruction to theory about them. For one reason, it is a product that exists externally and physically. In common conception, the work of art is identified with the building, book, painting, or statue in its existence apart from human experience. Since the actual work of art is what the product does with and in experience, the result is not favorable to understanding (Dewey, 1934: 3).

The application of this insight to Varenne’s Introduction or any of the ethnographic examples is immediately apparent by a simple topic change from art to education:

By one of the ironic perversities that often attend the course of affairs, the existence of institutionalized education upon which the formation of a learning theory depends has become an obstruction to theory about learning. For one reason, it is a product that exists externally and physically. In common conception, it is identified with the test score, the obscure fact, or the articulate display in its existence apart from human experience. Since the actual work of education is what education does with and in experience, the result is not favorable to understanding (Dewey, 1934: 3; word changes are in italics).

We can end our discussion by using the last ethnographic contribution to push Dewey’s text to a limit. Anthropology could have built more directly on Dewey’s thought throughout the twentieth century, but so too could have anthropology expanded Dewey’s impoverished examples of the workings of social life in a direction that would more completely fit his complex effort to move front and center the experiences of people building and undergoing lives in cultural contexts.11

Race is a difficult topic of conversation for Americans, and depending upon what else is being talked about and under what circumstances, particularly in interracial groups, many choose silence. White people often arrange to be colormute to go along with the claim of being colorblind (Pollock, 2002). Among a few exceptions, consider the occasional settings in which race must be addressed, as in discussions of achievement gap differentials, for example, never easily talked about at teachers’ meetings inside a high school, says Pollock, but which must be addressed at press conferences at a superintendent’s office. Consider also a group organized precisely to get people to talk about racial inequalities, racial injustice, and differential performance in school. The task is clear: that everyone has to be honest about race, racial differences, racial prejudices, the better that everyone should get along. The medium is clear: that all people have to do is talk with each other, to explain themselves, and all will get better, as if the conversation could be trusted to accomplish what the Bill of Rights could not, as if chatting could deliver on the promises that the school system claiming level playing fields could not.

In Lin’s account of a small institution designed to send the racially enlightened to schools to help teachers talk through their problems with race, the eye of the storm can be found not at the schools, but at the home office where administrators and their interns have trouble fashioning a race conversation of their own. Wanting to address the race problem in American education is not the same as addressing the race problem. The latter has to be done with real persons situated in real contexts with friendships, budgets, and identities all on line; it has to be done with complex persons simplified by race all dealing with seemingly simple persons made unbearably complex by race (Raley, 2006). Every step forward helps to construct the conditions of agreement and good intentions that are the background to the next moment’s foregrounding of disagreement and bad intentions. After eight months of trying to oversee their work, the head of the organization declares a moratorium on race as a topic.

Race, like IQ, like ability, like failure, is not a thing, not an absolute that can be held still, and never, not for a moment, quite like what we think before the conversation starts. In Dewey’s terms, it is a tool with many jobs, all of which we are engaged in without necessarily understanding all the connections involved. Lin does not use the terms alienation or “ironic perversities,” but she could have.

Culture is always a set of promises, many of which cannot be delivered on, not as stated, and rarely on demand. Promises like racial equality can be worked on, but rarely without surprises, and the more they are discussed without regard for their place in experience, without an account of how they reflexively constitute the conditions of their own discussion, they are likely to force participants to work against themselves. They make promises and thereby create what Dewey above called a “constancy of means,” but not hoped for outcomes; they are about “things used for consequences, not of things taken by themselves or absolutely” (Dewey, 1929b: 72). There is no choice but to continue the conversation, but it will never be easy, never clear. Racial equality and our other dreams and wishes for democracy will never become real just for the asking—not with what passes for method, structure, communication, and knowledge in our schools and workplaces. Enter the anthropologists.


1 In 1976, Cremin took the edge off the "deliberate" by adding that "learning takes place in many situations where intentionality is not present" (1976:27). In the 1978 definition cited by Varenne in his Introduction, Cremin adds "direct or indirect, intended or unintended" at the end.

2 Ruth Benedict, Ralph Linton, and Margaret Mead were the anthropologists Cremin studied (and studied with) as a young man. Later he followed the work of Clifford Geertz, who had in turn studied Dewey with George Geiger, his Antioch advisor.

3 At Columbia, Dewey and Franz Boas shared occasional students and causes for almost four decades. A few individuals, Ruth Benedict and Gene Welfish, in particular (Niehaus 2006), and Margaret Mead, less so (McDermott 2001), forged tentative ties between anthropology and pragmatism, but no school of thought and no way of doing things developed. Early in the century Dewey and George Herbert Mead had a strong influence on Chicago sociology (but not anthropology). After Talcott Parsons successfully excluded American philosophy from social thought in the 1930s, Dewey’s name continued to dominate educational philosophy, but not educational research (Lagemann 2000), and Mead’s vision was reduced to a social psychology. Anthropology was not ready for them, but the growth of an anthropology of education may require a return to pragmatism.

4 Cremin was a graduate student at Columbia and a sometimes dinner partner with the Deweys, 1949-1951. For forty years, Cremin used Dewey to think about education and was working on a book about Dewey when he died in 1990.

5 Samuel Taylor Coleridge defined sin as “an evil which has its ground or origin in the agent, and not in the compulsion of circumstances” (1825). A pragmatic take on truth should circumscribe the circumstances and address the consequences of actions taken. Consider C. S. Peirce: “The entire intellectual purport of any symbol [read: idea, knowledge, truth] consists of all general modes of rational conduct which, conditionally upon all the possible different circumstances and desires, would ensue upon the acceptance of the symbol” (1905:481).

6 On the resurgence of Dewey across concerns and disciplines, see J. McDermott (1976, 1986), Rorty (1982), Sleeper (1988), West (1989), Hickman (1992), and Manicas (1998).

7 On the drama of Experience and nature and Dewey's four Introductions over 25 years, see Jackson (2002).

8 A.L. Becker explains how a translator’s sensitivity to texts in another language do not constitute a subjectivism: “In translation . . . self-correction of this sort, the self-consciousness of one facing a text in a distant language, should not be confused with subjectivism, as some have suggested, for it is just the opposite—a respect for another voice, not an obsession with one’s own” (1989:282).

9 Here is the same position applied directly to educational research: “To suppose that scientific findings decide the value of educational undertakings is to reverse the real case. Actual activities in educating test the worth of the results of scientific results” (Dewey 1929c:33).

10 Cremin’s own position on social characteristics may be similar: that they must be studied as they are used in situ, as the people use them. His history of American education covering the years 1876 to 1985 rarely discusses race or class directly. Instead Cremin (1988) tells the stories of people dealing with problems. When race and class show up in the biographies, Cremin deals with them situated among the details.

11 For one important example, when Dewey wrote the Foreword to Paul Radin’s book on primitive philosophers, he moved well beyond the straw man stereotypes he would sometimes use to set up a contrast with Western thought (Dewey, 1927a). Radin’s ethnographic examples carried Dewey forward; that they did not permanently alter his approach only shows how much he should have been reading more anthropology.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 109 Number 7, 2007, p. 1820-1835
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 13825, Date Accessed: 5/27/2022 1:46:53 AM

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About the Author
  • Ray McDermott
    Stanford University
    E-mail Author
    RAY MCDERMOTT is Professor of Education and Anthropology at Stanford University, School of Education. His work includes studies of social interaction in classrooms. He is currently documenting the history of ideas such as genius, intelligence, and literacy.
  • Jason Raley
    University of California, Santa Barbara
    JASON DUQUE RALEY is Assistant Professor in the Gevirtz Graduate School of Education of the University of California, Santa Barbara. His interests include culture, learning, and social interaction; writing and literacy; teacher learning in networks and communities; qualitative research methods and interaction analysis.
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