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Alternative Anthropological Perspectives on Education Framework

by Hervé Varenne - 2007

What might happen to our understanding of education if we, as researchers, systematically suspended our most common understandings of what is to count as education and, instead, trusted people to tell us what they do deliberately to transform each other and their conditions?

Remember, you may have more instruction than I have, but you are not more educated. — Varenne’s grandmother, who left school after the 6th grade, circa 1914, on the occasion of his PhD.

The great paradox of work on education by social scientists is that it is mostly about schools, the learning of skills, and dispositions. It is very rarely about families, college dorms, hospitals, and the like, and even more rarely about the routine instructions that people give each other as to what to do, or what not to do. This routine work that fills our journals rarely addresses the explanations that people propose for their past and proposed actions, or their analyses of current conditions. And so, work on education is, paradoxically, rarely about education.

All educators, I dare generalize, know very well that schools are not the only educational institutions. Many even suspect that schools, as organized almost everywhere in the world, are not particularly good at educating—especially about what is most important in a person’s life, whether it be religion, political ideology, artistic identity, and all that makes the particular character of a person’s outlook on life. And yet almost all debates about “education” end up being debates about schooling and its travails. This is what we hope to change in this special issue of Teachers College Record. The issue brings together anthropologists willing to approach education directly as a fundamental human endeavor. In this perspective, schooling, where it has become culturally dominant, is but one of the many means that people with and without authority attempt to transform each other, their conditions, and themselves. Our goal is to investigate these means and to demonstrate that insisting on the ubiquity of education is more than a pious bow to humanism.

As anthropologists, we are disciplined to insist that close attention be paid to what human beings actually do in their everyday lives, as well as the more extraordinary moments when they set the conditions of their everyday lives. On the basis of research among the enslaved, the shamed, the confused, and all those who struggle, we made the argument for refocusing on education. Everywhere we find and document productive—indeed, transformative—activity limited only by what others actively do not do to acknowledge the transformation.

We make this argument as anthropologists. And yet anthropology could be considered problematic given that anthropologists, among social scientists, developed most thoroughly a sense now common among all behavioral scientists and much of the media, political classes, and so on: It is the sense that human beings are the product of their history or, as it is often put, their “culture.” In recent years, many anthropologists have tried to separate themselves from this discourse of culture. We do work with the concept of culture but refuse to make it stand for that which is learned early in life and that will then forever blind one to the powerful conditions that produced the learning. We critique “critical” approaches to the extent that, when even they use words like discourse, hegemony, history, habitus, and agency, they construct actors who are the determined products of circumstances.

There is an alternative in which actors are revealed to shape the future as they struggle, often in vain, to transform their circumstances. Provocatively, we start in this issue with generative, resistant, and productive ignorance. We explore the opportunities opened by looking for people who are struggling with ignorance. In our ethnographies, we are able to show people analyzing conditions, marshaling resources and, in many different ways, deliberately attempting to change—and then starting over again whether they have produced new conditions or whether return action by others has brought them back to where they were. Puzzling out the unknown, we argue, may be the most common human experience. If so, then action is best approached as the willful seeking of ways to deal with difficulties; with tensions between what one wishes to do and what one is asked to do; with oppression; and, for the privileged, with the resistance to oppression that may lead to changes in modes of control.

This special issue highlights the work of young anthropologists whose inductive work constitutes the core of the issue. Each of their articles is based on extensive fieldwork in various parts of the world and in many institutions. Each is built around a case study in which the author brings out the work of people from all walks of life as they analyze and transform the world that others make for them. They are case studies of deliberate efforts in the face of great oppression, and also in the face of persistent resistance. They are about the enslaved, the poor, or the young, as they face literacy and its potential; religion and its dangers; and personal relationships and their risks. These studies are also about teachers and administrators, program designers, museum curators, and policy makers as they attempt to face racism, maintain the reputation of their school, help the disabled, include the new migrants—always doing so in the face of continuing resistance that threatens earlier efforts to build benign institutions. The case studies take us to various times and places in the United States (slave plantations, college dorms, schools, nongovernmental organizations [NGOs], museums) and around the world (Brazil, Jordan, New Zealand, Sweden, Thailand). This sample of times, institutions, and political settings serves to provide a comparative perspective and further evidence for the ubiquity of the deliberate efforts where we find education.

The case studies are framed by two general papers. One is a reprint of a seminal paper by the great historian Lawrence Cremin, twice winner of the Pulitzer Prize for History and president of Teachers College from 1974 to 1984. The other paper, by Hervé Varenne (2007), is intended to provide the theoretical foundation for the stance illustrated in the case studies. Cremin blazed a trail that few followed, perhaps because he was in advance of his social scientific times. Most developments of social theory now support what seemed counterintuitive when he proposed it. From de Certeau to Garfinkel, many theorists now emphasize as most significant about humanity the deliberate and deliberative efforts to imagine possibilities, explore them, and face those who stand in the way. It is not that these efforts will necessarily achieve what many of those who will be involved would have wished; it is that these efforts are ever-renewed.

The case studies making up the next two sections of this special issue are designed to show that these general statements can be supported by social science research. To provide further framing, each section is introduced by the guest editor. In brief, the first five cases take us into the world of unauthorized education. First, Grey Gundaker (2007) reminds us of the efforts of slaves in early America to teach themselves how to read as they discovered the world into which they were thrust, and the place that they might make for themselves when their masters were not watching. Second, Lesley Bartlett (2007) reports on Brazilian women exploring what adult literacy programs might do for them. Third, Tracy Johnson (2007) presents Hmong girls who, as they look at their wardrobes, discover the global world within which they are beginning to make their lives. Fourth, Fida Adely (2007) outlines the educational work of Jordanian girls in high school as they deal with the various forms of Islam that they propose to each other. Finally, Portia Sabin (2007) asks a question that is rarely presented as an educational one: Where, when, and how do people in America find out about “friendship” and “love”? And what difference does it make?

The second set of case studies documents efforts by those who lead institutions to change those over whom they have authority, their relative failure to do so, their renewed attempts to frame their clients’ continued attempts to resist, and so on. Anne Lorimer (2007) shows how a Chicago museum exhibit specifically designed to teach one thing actually becomes the occasion for other forms of reflection and teaching. Linda Lin (2007) reports on the reconstruction of American racialized discourses, if not racism, even in an institution dedicated to facing those. James Mullooly (2007) brings out the fragility of a school’s reputation as its teachers dwell on their students (mis-behavior). Alison Stratton (2007) sketches the complexity of the settings for educational efforts that modern technologies offer for those who, as they age in Sweden, find it harder to hear or to be acknowledged as hearing. Finally, Ilana Gershon and Solonaima Collins (2007) looks at the impact of the redefinition of New Zealand into the bicultural (Maori/Pakeha) “Aotearoa/New Zealand,” on public displays designed to represent the various peoples who actually live there, in particular the people from Samoa and other Pacific islands who are neither Anglo nor Maori.

The special issue concludes with two essays of commentary, one by Ray McDermott (2007), who traces further the anthropological roots of our approach, and one by Ed Gordon and Michael Rebell (2007), who explore the policy implications of taking Cremin seriously.


The ideas that guided the shaping of this special issue were first presented at various seminars in Berkeley and Stanford during spring 2004. I first want to acknowledge the education I received from the participants in the “Thursday afternoon” group at Stanford: Larry Cuban, David Labaree, Elizabeth Hansot, David Tyack, and others who reminded me that Cremin’s definition remains a challenge. Jean Lave, Ray McDermott and their students presented different kinds of challenges. At Teachers College, George Bond, Ed Gordon, Ofelia Garcia, JoAnne Kleifgen, Robbie McClintock and students in various seminars gave appreciated comments and support.

An earlier version of this article was written in close collaboration with Portia Sabin, Alison Stratton, and James Mullooly. Our collective search to find education in college dorms, audiologist offices, and even classrooms strongly inspired the evolution of my own anthropological work. This evolution was further moved by my discussions with all those who first agreed to participate in the June 2005 conference at Teachers College and then contributed to this special issue. I am extremely grateful for their willingness to participate in this journey.

I also want to thank all those who read early drafts of all the articles in this issue and who helped the authors hone their arguments. I also want to thank the Educational Testing Service and the Department of International and Transcultural Studies at Teachers College for their financial support. Finally, special thanks are owed to Katie Keenan for appreciated editing help. I am particularly grateful to Carly Hutchinson who, besides also helping with excellent editing, gently but firmly kept us all the aware of the many deadlines and requirements.


Adely, Fida J. 2007. Is music haram? Jordanian girls educating each other about nation, faith and gender in school. Teachers College Record 109: 1663-1681.

Bartlett, Lesley. 2007. Human capital or human connections? The multiple meanings of education. Teachers College Record 109: 1613-1636.

Cremin, Lawrence. 1975. Public education and the education of the public. Teachers College Record 77:1–12. Repr. Teachers College Record 109: 1545-1558.

Gershon, Ilana, with Solonaima Collins. 2007. Outspoken indigenes and nostalgic migrants: Māori and Samoan educating performances in an Aotearoa New Zealand cultural festival. Teachers College Record 109: 1797-1818.

Gordon, Ed, and Michael Rebell. 2007. Commentary on “Deliberate change in everyday life: Alternative anthropological perspectives on education.” Teachers College Record 109: 1836-1843.

Gundaker, Grey. 2007. Hidden education among African Americans during slavery. Teachers College Record 109: 1591-1612.

Hervé, Varenne. 2007. Difficult collective deliberations: Anthropological notes toward a theory of education. Teachers College Record 109: 1559-1588.

Johnson, Tracy. 2007. Enclothing identity: A Hmong girl’s journey into the politics of identification in Thailand. Teachers College Record 109: 1637-1662.

Lorimer, Anne 2007. The cockpit’s empty chair: Education through appropriating alienation at a technology museum. Teachers College Record 109: 1707-1724.

Lin, Linda. 2007. (Mis-)education into American racism. Teachers College Record 109: 1725-1746.

McDermott, Ray. 2007. From John Dewey to an anthropology of education. Teachers College Record 109: 1820-1835.

Mullooly, James 2007. Regrading the eighth grade: Disciplining those who discipline in a Jesuit middle school. Teachers College Record 109: 1747-1774.

Sabin, Portia C. 2007. On sentimental education among college students. Teachers College Record 109: 1682-1704.

Stratton, Alison. 2007. Hard of Hearing in Sweden: Educating about and for pathology. Teachers College Record 109: 1775-1796.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 109 Number 7, 2007, p. 1539-1544
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 13810, Date Accessed: 12/4/2021 6:47:15 AM

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About the Author
  • Hervé Varenne
    Teachers College, Columbia University
    E-mail Author
    HERVÉ VARENNE is professor of education at Teachers College, Columbia University. As a cultural anthropologist, his major interests center on the processes that produce particular conditions for human beings in history, and their consequences. His most recent book, written with Ray McDermott, deals with the consequences of American schooling (Successful Failure, Westview 1998). Three recent articles develop the themes: with Ray McDermott, "Reconstructing Culture" (In New Horizons in the Ethnography of Education, ed. G. Spindler, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2006); with Mary Cotter, "Dr. Mom? Constituting, and Playing with, Statuses during Hospital Labor" (Human Studies, 2006); and “On NCATE Standards and Culture at Work” (Anthropology and Education Quarterly, 2007).
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