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An Anthropological Framework for Studying Education

by Thomas J. La Belle - 1972

Article discusses the influence of society and culture on the goals and content of educational problems. (Source: ERIC)

Cultural anthropology is perhaps the most recent of the social sciences to concern itself with the field of education. Although educators have for some time been concerned with the influence of society and culture on the goals and content of educational programs, until recently the anthropologist has not been active in the analysis of educational phenomena or in educational decision making. Instead, educators have been forced to rely upon ethnographies which often have little apparent relevance to their more applied interests.

With the increased attention given to subcultural groups in the United States during the 1960s, however, the two fields began to merge. Scholars soon realized the contributions which could be gained from systematic investigation of schools and their relationship to these minority populations. Thus in 1968 members of the American Anthropology Association formed the Council on Anthropology and Education in order to create a group of individuals concerned with the application of anthropological concepts and methods to the study of the educational process. In addition, departments of education and anthropology respectively began to offer courses and programs for the training of educational anthropologists.

Although much confusion exists about how the two fields can best unify efforts, there is common interest in the educational process, in what learners do as they adapt to certain environments, and what is done to and for learners with respect to specific educational goals.

This process is viewed in terms of cultural learnings as individuals and institutions adhere to one or more sociocultural traditions. The educational anthropologist investigates the orientation of transmitter and learner as well as the content and method of the transmission to test for continuity and discontinuity within and between cultural groups. My purpose here is to offer a cultural perspective on the school and the teaching-learning process.

Enculturation and Schooling        

Many individuals, including educators, are guilty of a somewhat narrow conception of education. We have been accustomed to viewing education as an institutional outcome, something which results from attending a school. Thus experiences which occur outside of school become, in terms of sociocultural expectations, nonsanctioned learnings.

These out-of-school learning experiences occur most often without credit or recogni­tion even though educators know them to have tremendous impact on in-school and out-of-school behavior. Anthropologists, on the other hand, reverse this outlook. They have viewed education as being synonymous with enculturation or the process by which an individual learns his own culture—a conception more adequate for simple rather than complex societies because the homogeneity of the former supports only one cultural tradition.

Through the analysis of the patterns of behavior instilled in early childhood, anthropologists have assumed that one can understand much of the adult behavior of a particular cultural group.' Until recently anthropologists have not had occa­sion to view the school as an aspect of this enculturation process. One of the reasons for this somewhat curious omission may be related to a perception of the school as a societal institution which reflects the wider social and cultural influences and is assumed to reinforce the externally sanctioned customs. Although this is true, there is reason to believe that the school establishes a discontinuous relationship with society,2 first because it may not meet with society's stated expectations by failing to instill widely held values and attitudes, and second, because it is discontinuous with the population it serves. As some have suggested, the school is designed to make lawyers out of farm boys and patriots out of immigrants. Such a discontinuity exists most often when the school is in the hands of a dominant culture and the population it serves is not in accord with that pattern.

Schools as the locus for culturally sanctioned learning are associated with much of this discontinuity for learners. Although a young person is physically mature in his teens, in the United States his level of cultural maturity is viewed as insufficient for full participation in the society. Schools assume the function of providing recognized learnings which enable the young person to eventually adjust to and be creative in the greater culture. Compulsory schooling, therefore, extends the period of adoles­cence, or the "crisis" period (as North Americans tend to perceive it). Compulsory schooling, however, is not manifested solely in the laws which fix minimum age for school leaving, but also in the social importance placed on increasing levels of school attainment. The sociocultural press encourages youngsters from grammar school through high school to "go to college."

As an example, assume that a male in the United States graduates from high school at the age of eighteen, enters the military service, and, upon discharge, goes to college. He spends a minimum of four years receiving his degree and decides to become a school teacher. He is twenty-four or twenty-five. He completes an addi­tional year of course work for his state teaching certificate and finds that in order to compete with teachers who presently hold positions he must secure a Master of

Arts degree. After an additional year behind a school desk, he celebrates his twenty-seventh birthday and begins his search for a teaching position. He has used more than one third of his life, mostly in school, in preparation for his first opportunity to assume responsibility outside of school.

The responsibilities he has had prior to assuming the role of teacher have been minimal: a few part-time jobs to see him through the extended period financially and some structured decisions regarding which courses to take to fulfill requirements. Above all he has learned to become dependent upon others and, through this, has acquired great skill in following instructions. Although there are many variations on how a person makes it through extended adolescence, the outcome is much the same. The period is marked by crisis; the individual may not only have thought that during at least the last ten years of his life he was physically mature, but also might have been confident of his ability to make substantive contributions to the society. Such cases may indicate a society which places great faith in institutional schooling and which is ready to cope with the insurrections which are indirectly supported through such a system.

Educational anthropologists are concerned with the process by which children become adults and the cultural definition of adulthood. Not all cultures view the process of maturation as we do. Adolescence might not be recognized at all, as was shown by Margaret Mead's investigations in Samoa. Institutional schooling, as is the case with literacy, may play a part in the demarcation of particular stages of development within cultures.

In preliterate cultures, knowledge is sought by pupils as a guide to their inevitable life roles. The child always is in close physical contact with the matured activity that he is merely learning. By contrast, in literate cultures, the very phenomena of literacy permits a separation between the learning and the doing. The school itself, and what the pupil is learning in it, are physically separate from adult application of the learning. One result is the child's failure to feel an immediate relevance in the relation between what is being taught him now and what this has to do with the rest of his life.3

Educators are slow to note that institutional schooling fosters discontinuity and alters conceptions of child growth and development, and the school continues to be viewed narrowly as the panacea for answering present and future societal problems. Our orientation apparently assumes that a world characterized by crisis can be changed by placing more and more individuals in schools.

The "Tousled-Head" Phenomenon      

There are other social and cultural reasons for keeping people in school. As George A. Pettitt remarks:

Many non-educational agencies are not at all unhappy with the school system because it gives them a scapegoat to blame for sociocultural ailments. The United States Department of Labor has consistently maintained that unemployment occurs because the most elaborate school system in the world is not elaborate enough. Organized labor is relieved of responsibility for restrictions on apprentice­ships in skilled trades and is free to fight for higher minimum wage laws because of the growing acquiescence in the idea that all young people are better off in school. Industrial and business management, which must compete with the world on the basis of quality, production efficiency, and cost, prefers not to be bothered with inexperienced juveniles for whom minimum wage laws make no reasonable differential, whose ages must be doubly checked for compliance with school attendance laws, whose employment involves added paper work with governmen­tal and union supervisors of apprenticeships, and whose hours and working condi­tions must be watched to avoid infraction of child labor laws. In addition, there is no special provision for juveniles in unemployment insurance, social security, pension plans, or health and other fringe benefit payments. This situation results from well-intentioned cultural elaborations promoted by public servants looking for popular causes to serve and private volunteers looking for worthy purposes to push. Unfortunately, neither category of culture-makers can appreciate the problems created in some of the tousled heads they are trying to save.4

The "tousled-head" phenomenon is evidence of an adult-centered world and is partly a result of the contradictory values which are set in front of a young person attempting to cope with his environment through adherence to an established orien­tation. The continuity in simple, as opposed to complex, societies is greater because the child's work and play are integrated into the total society. In American schools, however, the teacher often emphasizes one thing, such as creativity or individuality, yet makes an evaluation on the basis of an external source, for example when a primary student is asked to trace a cardboard figure of a clown rather than to draw or paint one.5 Such activities, however, may be seen as both hypocritical and para­doxical by students. For example, learning the importance of the content of the constitution is one experience, but participation in student government is another, perhaps more important and lasting. Yet in school such student activities are often so tightly monitored by and dependent upon the approval of adults that the experi­ence does not fulfill the ideal; it instead highlights the double standard upon which our wider sociocultural process depends.

The conflicts of cooperation versus competition, equality versus segregation, suc­cess in work versus social consciousness and sociability, independence versus obedi­ence, and puritan morality versus situational ethics are only a few of the values which confront the American youngster as he attempts to learn appropriate cultur­ally sanctioned behavior. Although such conflicts are most likely inevitable in a complex culture, the role of the school in coping with them is not yet clear. The youngster's peers provide sustenance for one set of value orientations, but the school and its referent culture are confused over which values to champion and under what conditions these values should be promoted. Thus the youngster may find solace with his peers and may work to promote continuity between opposing orientations. It is not that he rejects completely the values set out by the older generation; he cannot. Instead, he seeks to establish an integrative, noncontradictory thread to give coherence to such values. The school, in both the recognized and unrecognized learning experiences to which it acts as catalyst, is able to build upon this worthy effort by fostering consistency in such experiences.

The educational anthropologist because of his cross-cultural perspective is able to aid in this endeavor. As he continues to study child rearing in the family and community, he must also recognize the potential impact the school has as the formal enculturator within society, and the interaction which exists between the school and the external environment in molding the child.

The School as Locus for Cultural Learning

All of the teaching and learning which occurs inside and outside of the school is related to one or more cultural traditions. Each activity can be explained rationally or non-rationally by the actors if they are queried about why they behave as they do, although such explanations may be no more than "we have always done it that way." The educational anthropologist views the planned and unplanned activities in which individuals engage from the perspective of an outsider in an attempt to ferret out the meaning they have for the participants.

As an example, schools show considerable dependence upon ritual and ceremony in the normal round of activities characterizing a school day.6 From the lining up at classroom doors and raising of hands for permission to relieve oneself to the pep rally and graduation ceremony, such rites provide cohesion and structure to the institution yet are unrelated to the achievement of pragmatic ends. They enable participants to predict behavior patterns of others under similar circumstances. In part they form the recognized learning activities which transpire in the school.

The educational anthropologist identifies these recognized activities by interview­ing the participants, reviewing the curricular materials, and recording the daily activities of the transmitters and learners. The activities may be planned, in that they are sanctioned because they lead to a premeditated change in behavior, or they may be unplanned, in that they may inadvertently give rise to unintended behavior change. For example, the student council might be thought of as a recognized activity which is designed to foster in students behavior characteristic of legislators participating in a democratic decision-making process. Thus the experience is planned to manifest specific outcomes in learners. As mentioned earlier, however, the learners may find that the legislation they are asked to pass on is insignificant, or that the decisions made within the council are vetoed by the administration. Thus the recognized activity promotes covert behavior change in the form of negative attitudes toward the council, the school, or the process. Recognized activities, therefore, can be analyzed in terms of anticipated and unanticipated outcomes.

Unrecognized learning activities also occur under the direction of the school. The school is tied to a referent culture, one from which it derives its norms and values and by which it justifies its activities. Value orientations form the basis for individual and societal needs and include our conceptions of time, space, innate human nature, causality, acceptable human activity, and the way in which men interact with each other.7 Values indicate the ideals and goals of a culture and provide a population with rules to judge right from wrong and good from bad. Associated with these values, yet seldom mentioned, is the observation that much of everyone's behavior is based on habit, and is, therefore, unconscious and acquired over prolonged periods of time. These unconscious activities are often viewed as constants in the school and are, therefore, referred to here as unrecognized since they are rarely analyzed for their impact on learners. The gestures and forms of salutation we employ and our styles of walking and talking are some of the numerous activities which go unrecog­nized. These habitual acts provide us with a predictable pattern of behavior and they are the activities which give the population its unique life style. During crisis periods, when danger is perceived, or when we are deprived of essentials to carry on habitual acts, we may question these behaviors. Thus the student strike or the ethnic group picketing the school board may give rise to increased questioning of our normal activities.

In the school unrecognized learnings form a part of what Philip Jackson has called the "hidden curriculum," which he suggests requires as much mastery by students as the planned curriculum.

Consider, as an instance, the common teaching practice of giving a student credit for trying. What do teachers mean when'they say a student tries to do his work? They mean, in essence, that he complies with the procedural expectations of the institution. He does his homework (though incorrectly), he raises his hand during class discussion (though he usually comes up with the wrong answer), he keeps his nose in his book during free study period (though he doesn't turn the page very often). He is, in other words, a "model" student, though not necessarily a good one.8

Jackson implies that much of what goes on in classrooms may be expected activity but is not recognized as part of the stated curriculum sanctioned by the school. Jules Henry also has referred to these unrecognized learnings.

A classroom can be compared to a communications system, for certainly there is a flow of messages between teacher (transmitter) and pupils (receivers) and among the pupils, contacts are made and broken, messages can be sent at a certain rate of speed only, and so on. But there is also another interesting characteristic of communications systems that is applicable to classrooms, and that is their inher­ent tendency to generate noise. ... In a classroom lesson on arithmetic, for example, such noise would range all the way from the competitiveness of the students, the quality of the teacher's voice ("I remember exactly how she sounded when she told me to sit down") to the shuffling of the children's feet. The striking thing about the child is that along with his arithmetic—his "messages about arithmetic"—he learns all the noise in the system also. ... It is this that brings it about that an objective observer cannot tell which is being learned in any lesson, the noise or the formal subject matter. But—and mark this well—it is not primarily the message (let us say, the arithmetic or the spelling) that constitutes the most important subject matter to be learned, but the noise! The most signifi­cant cultural learnings—primarily the cultural drives—are communicated as "noise."9

Such observations suggest that what students really learn in schools is not the recognized curriculum; instead they learn from the way in which the schooling process is habitually conducted. They learn to be dependent, competitive, and obedi­ent—goals which few curriculum specialists would sanction, yet goals which would be recognized by anyone who has thought about his school career as essential for survival.

Although we now have the technology and expertise to ensure the mastery of certain concepts by learners, we would be naive to view the objectives of a lesson, whether it be by teaching machine or by student contract, to be the only outcome of the process itself. Thus the unconscious messages transmitted as a result of the machine or the contract, or for that matter as a result of any human activity, must be acknowledged and evaluated from the perspective of the receiver as well as the transmitter. The educational anthropologist is concerned with investigating this sociocultural process across cultural boundaries from these two perspectives.

Both the recognized (planned and unplanned) and the unrecognized activities are important culturally because they may be directed to culture-specific or nonculture-specific ends when viewed in relation to the orientations of the learner (see table). For example, when the Anglo teacher begins teaching in a culturally different community, he becomes an agent of cultural diffusion. He utilizes his own cultural tradition as a guide to promote changes in a new culture. In some respects the cultural traditions of teacher and learner are in conflict. In other words, what the teacher provides may not already be part of the students' community heritage. The outcome is cultural change by the teacher rather than reinforcement of the learner's referent culture.

Textbooks and other instructional materials can be an example of recognized unplanned activities which lead to nonculture-specific ends for the learner. In some social studies texts the Mexican American is not only made out to be the descendent of aggressors and criminals as a result of the Alamo, but must read or see capsule portraits of himself as a lazy, fatalistic, and present-oriented individual whose only concerns are fiestas and mañana. One can only hypothesize the impact of such content on the self-fulfillment of a Mexican-American child, let alone the impact such stereotypes have for the Anglo child. The educational anthropologist wishes to view the impact on the group as a whole and may ask whether the self-fulfilling prophecy10 is valid for an entire ethnic group.

Lack of Recognition

The Anglo teacher who in­teracts with a group of Anglo students will find great congruence in cultural back­ground and consequently will reinforce the traditions of the learners. The teacher must recognize, however, even in this case, that some of the experiences in which teacher and learners engage are not those to which the teacher would adhere if the teacher realized that the messages transmitted were the result of adherence to habit rather than of conscious intent. I am suggesting that teachers take cognizance of the amount of behavior in classrooms which would not be sanctioned if that behavior was described for the teacher and the teacher knew that the result of such message transmission was either tangential or even antithetical to his stated goals. In the cross-cultural situation even the consciously planned activities are not scrutinized for their cultural loadings and can thus terminate in conflict and the cultural alienation of the learner.

The ways, for example, in which the teacher responds to student behavior, the often-subtle distinctions made between the sexes, the nature of the classroom control mechanisms, the topics and issues chosen for classroom study, the schedule of activities in terms of the amount of time devoted to particular aspects of the school day, the spatial organization of the classrooms, and the rewards and punishments meted out are only a few of the activities which are culturally loaded and which, through habitual acts on the part of educators, transmit messages which reinforce certain student behavior and discourage others. Such daily activities tend to be characteristic of particular cultural groups, and thus are more widespread than phenomena resulting from individual personality types or social class groupings.

Dumont and Wax, in an article on the Cherokee Indians in northeastern Okla­homa, support this position. Most of the schools attended by these tribal Cherokee children are staffed with educators ethnically and linguistically different from the students they teach.

Such classrooms may be denominated as "cross-cultural," although the ingredi­ents contributed by each party seem to be weighted against the Indian pupils. The nature and layout of the school campus, the structure and spatial divisions of the school buildings, the very chairs and their array, all these are products of the greater society and its culture—indeed, they may at first glance seem so conven­tional that they fail to register with the academic observer the significance of their presence within a cross-cultural transaction. Equally conventional, and almost more difficult to apprehend as significant is the temporal structure: the school day; and the school calendar. The spatial and temporal grid by which the lives of the Indian pupils are organized is foreign to their native traditions, manifesting as it does the symbolic structure of the society which has encompassed them.11

Thus the organization and structure of an institution are evidence of cultural influences which prove alienating to a different ethnic population. The recognized schooling process in this case is directed toward nonculture-specific ends in terms of the orientation of the school administration when viewed in relation to the cultural background of the students.

The teacher in the classroom often evidences behavior which is based upon her expectations of appropriate human activity. One such expectation relates to social organization. For example, the teacher may view the nuclear family as the only stable family social organization in that it provides a child with siblings, father, and mother, all of whom reside within one dwelling. The teacher will also recognize that divorce and separation may negatively affect the child's personal and social develop­ment if it occurs after the basic nuclear pattern has been instituted. The teacher may not, however, realize that the matrifocal, or mother-headed family, if purposefully instituted by some ethnic groups, may be as stable as the nuclear type given the nature of the adaptations required for survival by those groups. The word "stable" then becomes exceedingly value-laden since textbooks, classroom discussions, telephone calls to the home, and participation in some school activities are oriented toward the existence of a father in long-term residence.

Although more examples could be cited, the thrust of the argument should be clear. Schools do not promote cultural continuity for all students. Instead schools are just as likely to promote cultural change and force youngsters to cope with conflict in basic value orientations between the family and the wider society. Teach­ers must, therefore, take note of the nature of their habitual behavior and begin to analyze it for the effects it has on all of the students in the school. Forcing oneself to stand back from the school environment to discover those orientations which inhibit communication and are most likely to prove damaging seems to be the most valuable first step in such an analysis. This leads us to a discussion of the importance of culture in viewing the relationship between the school and its referent community and in viewing the school and classroom as sociocultural systems.

The Culture Concept

The culture concept forms the basis for the field of anthropology and inevitably permeates the field of educa­tional anthropology. Culture encompasses the wide variety of customs and forms of social life characteristic of human behavior. Education, on the other hand, is the process through which cultures perpetuate and attempt to change themselves; it is concerned with the transmission, conservation, extension, and reconstruction of culture.

In order to understand how educational anthropologists use culture to view educational phenomena, it is necessary first to note the somewhat arbitrary use of the concept by anthropologists. Traditionally the culture concept has been applied to fit the ethnographer's operationally defined social group. In other words, the anthropologist draws arbitrary boundaries around a specific target population. This cultural system is then described as a relatively self-sufficient entity in which the decision-making capacity is inherent and the group's membership is controlled.12 Some have suggested that there were never many truly isolated populations studied by anthropologists, since most populations have some contact with other groups. Anthropological boundaries are, therefore, tenuous and artificial; they are drawn in order to delineate in some way the traits which distinguish a particular community from others.13 As will be shown later, the educational anthropologist is faced with a similar task as he views the school and classroom; the same arbitrary boundaries must be drawn.

In pluralistic societies such as the United States ethnic groups exist side by side with each other as well as with the dominant Anglo majority. As in other societies, religious, economic, political, and educational institutions transcend these specific minority cultures and exist irrespective of the specific settlement patterns of a minority group. As is the case with the school, these institutions reflect the dominant culture and are often called on to act as mechanisms for cultural integration. For example, some highland Indian populations of Latin America were absorbed into the greater or larger Hispanic tradition as a result of the Spanish conquest. Today, when studying such Indian populations, one needs to define which traditions have been imposed through dominant institutions. As an example, the rural Latin Ameri­can village usually has a Catholic church which draws the Indians into a particular nation as well as into a wider world community.

The educational anthropologist studies how the assimilation is achieved through the school. Although the school is the main focus of school-community studies, it is assessed in terms of its incorporation into the society. Political and religious behavior, family life, peer mechanisms, language, economic pursuits, health prac­tices, and social class phenomena are viewed as part of the school's aims and daily operation.

Published school-community case studies now number about twenty and are available for Canada,14 British Columbia,15 Japan,16 and Germany,17 among others. The investigator in these situations is not attempting to suggest how the school should meet such problems; instead he is trying to describe what actually happens in schools.

The most successful investigations demand that the ethnographer live in the community and work with the school personnel as he describes day-to-day routine and conducts in-depth interviews with participants. We are currently studying the relationship between lower socioeconomic status families and one public and one private school in a Mexican border city. The early results indicate that the availabil­ity of schools is an important contributing factor to urbanization. The school, however, apparently does little to relate its existence to fulfilling student or com­munity needs. The more than 60 percent dropout rate which occurs during the first three years of primary school attests to this lack of attention. By visiting homes and classrooms and by accompanying students, teachers, and parents in their daily activities, I and my colleagues hope to provide some insight into why Mexican migrants view the school positively yet dropouts are so numerous, and what the relationship is between life style and the curriculum and instruction encountered at school.

Such studies are more than statistical profiles. They also encompass more than attitudinal questionnaires. The school and it's community are viewed as a cultural process, a system in operation. Educators then use such information to provide more concrete and relevant learning experiences for students. The school-community study becomes the base line for changes within the school. The school administrator and classroom teacher in the United States would most likely find such investigations valuable in designing curricula.

The educational anthropologist may apply the culture concept to a study of the school and classroom as sociocultural systems. It is recognized that the school cannot be viewed as a culture in and of itself since it draws external rules and norms, ideals, and values from the community of which it is a part.18 Yet because of social class, racial caste, or ethnic differences few American communities are sufficiently homogeneous to warrant being considered complete cultural units. Rather, such communities are part of a wider sociocultural entity. Therefore, the investigator in a school which serves a multiple subcultural population must address himself to the various subcultural referent groups which come together in the institution. He studies the cultural backgrounds of students and staff and then looks at the compata-bility between these populations and the experiences and goals established as part of the schooling process.

Although schools are inextricably bound to the external society and mirror that sociocultural influence, it is often difficult to identify the referent culture to which such schools are tied.19 It is well known, however, that in cultural traits such refer­ent populations may differ considerably from what is expected in the school and thereby widen rather than narrow the incongruity between the school and the population it serves.

The school and its primary unit, the classroom, are the locus for this cultural interaction and it is here that the educational anthropologist can pursue further ethnographic research. In addition, such analyses are appropriate irrespective of the classroom's function as a cultural interface. One of the major concerns of curriculum specialists is their lack of knowledge concerning what actually goes on in classrooms. Thus the educational anthropologist as participant-observer may aid in the develop­ment of curricular theory through cross-cultural research.

The Classroom as Sociocultural System

One ap­proach to classroom ethnography is to treat the classroom as a sociocultural system in which small groups of people are engaged in habitual activities leading to the achievement of specific goals. One anthropologist, Alan Beals, feels that any group of people who come together for a purpose can be considered a sociocultural system even though they may disband after such interactions. Airplane flight crews and children's play groups are among the units which Beals has analyzed in this way.

When a set of people form a cultural system, a distinction is made between the things that belong to that group and the things that do not belong. Within the cultural system are the things (material culture), the people (society), the tradition (culture), and the activities that belong. Outside are the things, people, traditions, and activities that do not belong. A single game of seed, like a single funeral, can be considered to be an example of a particular process. Process is merely cultural system written small. Put another way, a cultural system is the sum total of all the processes, happenings, or activities in which a given set or several sets of people habitually engage. A process or a cultural system exists only when activities are taking place.20

It is possible that students and teachers engaged in goal oriented behavior can be analyzed as a subcultural system which meets the criteria established by Beals: the classroom contains people, material objects, a system in operation, and a tradition established over time. Students and teacher come together in a classroom to achieve goals. They use certain materials such as paper, pencils, desks, and blackboards to achieve these goals. The system revolves around teaching and learning through teacher- or student-designated experiences which are expected to enable children to achieve the desired ends. The tradition evolves or develops as a result of student and teacher coming together regularly in an attempt to fulfill the purposes of the system. Such a tradition includes expected behavior patterns based on the values and atti­tudes of the members and provides the group with a predictable set of circumstances which will be in operation each time the group meets and carries on activities.

The classroom so denned is an arbitrary entity much as ethnic groups or minority subcultures, are often arbitrary designations. For analytic purposes, however, such entities must be separated and analyzed as units in order to predict and explain classroom behavior.

Depending upon age and grade the classroom can be an extremely complex entity which encompasses numerous simultaneous activities. In some ways, however, these separate activities form a mosaic which can be used for comparative purposes within and across socioeconomic status and ethnic groups. Numerous studies are currently under way in which the educational anthropologist uses his participant-observer methodology to view the classroom, or in some cases the entire school, from an ethnographic perspective.21

Philip Jackson has shown the "interpersonal interchanges" between a single teacher and her students in one elementary classroom can reach one thousand per day. Thus the seemingly organized, relatively quiet classroom which greets the visitor is in actuality a place of intense activity. Yet the quantification of such behavior is only one aspect of the classroom environment which interests the educa­tional anthropologist.

School is a place where tests are failed and passed, where amusing things happen, where new insights are stumbled upon, and skills acquired. But it is also a place in which people sit, and listen, and wait, and raise their hands, and pass out paper, and stand in line, and sharpen pencils. School is where we encounter both friends and foes, where imagination is unleashed and misunderstanding brought to ground. But it is also a place in which yawns are stifled and initials scratched on desktops, where milk money is collected and recess lines are formed. Both aspects of school life, the celebrated and the unnoticed, are familiar to all of us, but the latter, if only because of its characteristic neglect, seems to deserve more attention than it has received to date from those who are interested in education.22

One method of studying what goes on in schools is to follow teachers and school principals while they engage in their normal behavior. One very recent study which exemplifies the participant-observer technique viewed the daily patterns of an ele­mentary school principal.23 As a participant-observer, the ethnographer, over an extended period, described the many roles of the administrator during his daily activities. In addition, this same educational anthropologist observed the way in which applicants for a principalship position were interviewed and evaluated during a series of meetings of a review committee. This particular study supplied insight into the actual means by which individuals were evaluated as opposed to published criteria.

Our primary interest in pursuing such microethnographic24 investigations rests with the area which Alan Beals calls "tradition." We are assuming that classrooms differ according to this multidimensional variable and that they do so in relation to wider cultural influences which evidence themselves in classrooms through the people who participate in the learning process. As in any cultural or subcultural system, classroom behavior must be predictable within definable limits so that teaching and learning may occur. When students enter the classroom at the begin­ning of the semester, they await the arrival of the teacher who will provide, either on her own or in concert with them, the ground rules for classroom operation. Some teachers do so gradually, whereas others may immediately present specific guidelines or rules which set minimum standards. Furthermore, no matter what the teacher does consciously, the unconscious transmission of rules and norms in response to certain stimuli occurs regularly and often has more impact on students than the preplanned verbal or nonverbal behavior. I alluded to this earlier by suggesting that students learn to be dependent upon teachers in order to achieve school success. Such behavior often lies in opposition to the verbal commitment to provide flexibility enabling each student to progress at his own rate of speed.

As an example, we are presently studying how classroom behavior is justified and controlled by teachers and students and whether such behavior is derived from the class and school subculture or from outside the school.25 In observing three- and four-year-old children, we have found that teachers at several private schools con­centrate more on justifying the control of classroom behavior by establishing them­selves as providers and enforcers of organization and efficiency that on enforcing and transmitting external social norms and values. Thus the tradition of administrative organization for efficient operations appears to begin early in the child's school experience. The teachers create a situation in which class activities center on direc­tions by the teacher and obedience by students. Therefore, students spend the majority of class time learning appropriate classroom behavior which may or may not relate to externally sanctioned behavior. For example, hand raising, use of books and toys, and sitting and standing at appropriate times and places received much more attention from teachers than external norms such as respecting others, taking turns, and honesty. Based on our small sample such activity appears to transcend teacher personality.

This dependency on the teacher makes self-directed learning, if it ever occurs at later stages, a new phenomenon for students, and often frustrating for them and their teachers. The secondary school or university teacher who encourages students to choose their own topics for research often finds students unable to make such decisions; nothing apparently interests them. Instead they wish to know what they can do to receive a particular grade. Undoubtedly teachers at all levels take too much initiative, which results, as Margaret Mead suggests, in a system which emphasizes teaching rather than learning.26

Culture Conflict and the Applied Educational An­thropologist

In addition to descriptive studies of schools and communities and studies of classrooms and schools as sociocultural systems, the applied educational anthropologist uses the culture concept to aid schools in achieving more relevant schooling. In recent years there has been increased interest in analyzing ethnic groups in order to design curricular and instructional changes which would be more congruent with their life patterns. The anthropologist's contribution lies in analyzing data on the ethnic group and then designing culturally relevant schooling experi­ences to move the population toward achieving specific goals.

The educational anthropologist would suggest that schooling objectives must be approached within the cultural orientations of the target population. In other words, objectives in and of themselves have little merit unless one views the target popula­tion's values, perceptions, cognitive processes, and language with respect to these goals. For example, to say that all children should have a specific reading vocabulary at the end of a school year says nothing about how one chooses the words to be learned, how the instructional materials relate to the life style of a given ethnic group, or how the teaching-learning process should be altered to take into account cultural difference.

Paulo Freire suggests that literacy training should be centered around a dialogue about meaningful situations in the life of the learners. Freire attempts to isolate a minimal core vocabulary regarding actual situations in which the learners have participated. The words are chosen through informal conversations with the learners in order to isolate words which include the basic sounds of the language, which will move from simple to complex letters and sounds, and which awaken in the learner a consciousness about social, cultural, and political reality. The learners are not, therefore, subjected to trite and inconsequential experiences through stories center­ing on how to make "Spot" run.27

Although many educators concur verbally with the principle of cultural relevance, culturally relevant schooling seldom occurs. Teaching materials and methods con­tinue to be imposed by the dominant group. Textbooks designed to teach Mexican-American youngsters to read, for example, may come from Puerto Rico, where Spanish is the language but where values and attitudes, as well as vocabulary, are at variance with the Mexican-American culture.

Such incongruities can be found with American Indian groups who attend schools operated by non-Indians. As an example, it is know that the Hopi Indians value cooperation and sharing.

Sharing is an adaptive pattern since Amerindians often inhabit difficult environ­ments. In a desert culture, such as the Hopi, "no one gets ahead unless we all get ahead. The threat of death from thirst and starvation hangs over all of us." The same attitude no doubt carries over into the school, where one Hopi student will be unlikely to raise his hand before another one, since he has always been taught not to excel.28

As a result, one might find that Hopi students talk to each other during written classroom examinations. An anthropologist working with Hopi youngsters might attempt to devise instructional materials appropriate to group activities, thus rein­forcing such behavior patterns common to these Indian communities.

The school is a natural laboratory for the study of cultural change. Acculturation, as a slow process of change in two or more cultures, occurs daily in classrooms across the country as teachers and students hold varying degrees of commitment to a given cultural tradition.29 Schools which are currently experiencing forced integration provide an excellent opportunity to view cultural change in progress and thereby provide insight into other forms of integration, such as housing and employment. Change, however, is not a one-way process; it is as important to view the impact of culture contact on the majority as on the minority culture. This has almost been forgotten in the rush to turn the "disadvantaged" into the "advantaged."30

In studying a southwestern city, the following process was found: first a Spanish-American family moves from the northern part of the state where the land is no longer fertile to a large city into a predominantly lower-class Mexican-American community. With very good fortune, five or ten years later a move is made across town into a middle-class area, or the children of that original family make such a move, and their offspring begin attending a predominantly middle-class or lower-middle-class Anglo school.

At school the child is in what might be termed a conflict situation for cultural identification. His family abandons traits which might label it Mexican or Spanish, and the child finds it difficult to make the language and cultural leap. For example, there may be instances in which such children will ask to be dismissed from taking lunch in the cafeteria to avoid eating enchiladas or tacos and being labeled Mexican. This phase invariably passes, with the permanent impact unknown. In time such families often reverse their stand and become intensely proud of their heritage and such overt cultural items as food, music, and dress.


Cross-cultural problem areas like those just mentioned are not limited to the United States and are often complicated by the existence of other languages. In the developing nations of Latin America, for exam­ple, educational planners are faced with integrating numerous culturally and linguis­tically different populations. Schooling is often called upon to achieve this end. Guatemala, for example, is characterized by approximately five major linguistic codes and over two hundred dialects among a population of less than five million. It is not feasible to develop each major language for national and international affairs; therefore, the task becomes one of promoting literacy in a second language while retaining the first. Yet language does not exist in a vacuum; it is closely related to a given environment and cultural tradition.31

It can be assumed that a given population will have words for material objects as well as social concepts and that this vocabulary in some ways structures the universe for the population. The nation that is characterized by the existence of two or more languages finds that each language serves distinct functions for the user. One set of behavior patterns is supported and expressed through one language and another set through another. The languages are often separated in accordance with their usage; one may be used in school and the other may be used at home and in the neighborhood. The same distinctions may be made within a single language which is characterized by several dialects. Language has a strong impact on percep­tion and conception. The Navajo Indians, for example, divide the color spectrum differently than we do.32 Abruptly divorcing an individual from his language is likely, therefore, to cut him off" from his traditional life style and his unique percep­tion of the world.

In schools in which the majority of the staff represent cultural and linguistic backgrounds which differ from those of the students, it is likely that the students will rely upon support from those who are closest in background to themselves. Thus Spanish-speaking children in the Southwest are likely to turn to Spanish-speaking cooks in the cafeteria when anxious about something rather than to an Anglo teacher.33 Children who are prevented from speaking their native language at school are cut off from their own culture. Because the truly bilingual person by definition must also be bicultural, second-language programs must be combined with culture and area studies at all levels of schooling. Bilingual programs which fail to recognize this interrelationship are most likely doomed to leave in their wake cultur­ally alienated youngsters who mature in a conflict state, comfortable with neither their native nor their second language.

Conceptual Styles      

In addition to being concerned with value orientations and language, the educational anthropologist also recognizes the importance of cognition and conceptual style in the learning process. This topic, which might best be categorized as cognitive anthropology, concerns itself with learning styles and the influence of language, culture, and environment on the aptitude of given populations. Although such studies are few in number, it has been shown that there are environments which support different methods of knowing. A given cultural tradition may or may not lend itself to the learning of concepts and skills of another culture, without relevant curricular and methodological appro­aches.

The imposition of a Western technological orientation on the study of mathemat­ics in Liberia was investigated by Gay and Cole.34 They experimented with Kpelle students as well as with control groups from the United States. They found that the Kpelle could judge more accurately the number of cups of rice in a bowl than could the Americans. Another experiment asked that the same populations sort a number of cards. The task was to sort the cards consecutively into three categories according to various symbols. The Americans experienced few problems yet the Kpelle found great difficulty in sorting the cards even once. Such simple experiments indicate the influence of culture on the performance of cognitive and psychomotoric tasks. The Americans failed to make a simple numerical judgment and the Kpelle failed to make a simple sorting judgment.

Such experiments make questionable the universality of cognitive structures. Ro­salie Cohen has analyzed two conceptual styles which emerged from a series of research studies in the United States. One is referred to as "analytic," and the other is called "relational." According to Cohen, our schools require, through intelligence and achievement tests, increasingly sophisticated analytic cognitive skills rather than relational skills, yet both are characteristic of a segment of the school population. Both have been found to be independent of native ability. These conceptual styles were associated with formal and informal primary group socialization patterns. The child who demonstrated a relational approach to reality organization was character­ized by shared-function environments common in families of lower socioeconomic status, whereas the child who demonstrated an analytic approach to reality organiza­tion was characterized by more formal primary-group participation common in middle-class families. Thus the analytic rule set for the organization of sense data is embedded in the formal school organization where teaching and learning take place. For example, Cohen remarks that:

. . . the analytic mode of abstraction presumes a system of linear components. Similar linear components are found in the perception of time as a continuum or in a linear projection of social space, and they underlie the notion of multiple causality. This linear component does not appear among polar-relational children on tests of cognitive style, in their characteristic language style, nor in the ordering of authority or responsibility in shared-function social groups. Certain common values and beliefs follow from such a common component. For instance, without the assumption of linearity such notions as social mobility, the value of money, improving one's performance, getting ahead, infinity, or hierarchies of any type, all of which presume the linear extension of critical elements, do not have meaning for the relational child. In essence, the requirements for formal abstraction and extraction of components to produce linear continua are not logically possible within the relational rule set.35

Although much attention has been given to the amount of information a culturally different child is able to exhibit, the research just cited poses questions regarding the nature of the organization of sense data rather than of the substance or information component of that data.

In other words, the quantity of information possessed by a population is only one aspect of cultural difference; the other, or conceptual style, is of at least equal importance in terms of designing and planning the curriculum and instructional process. Both the Gay and Cole and the Cohen studies may lead toward the develop­ment of varied approaches to the creation of specialized learning environments in terms of school organization, curricula, and teaching methods. As Cohen suggests, the development of "procedures for more valid measurement of learning potential and the development of more appropriate learning methods and settings are depend­ent upon the abandonment of assumptions that there is a single method for know­ing."36

In conclusion, I have attempted to point out those areas in which I feel the educational anthropologists are most active and the kinds of insights a cultural perspective on the school might contribute to a greater understanding of the teach­ing-learning process: first, with regard to enculturation and schooling; second, with the school as locus for cultural learning; third, the culture concept; and fourth, culture conflict and the applied educational anthropologist. It should be obvious that these are overlapping rather than separate areas.

Because we are all products of at least one cultural tradition, our behavior mani­fests certain expectancies which we anticipate in others. The teacher expects that others will behave within reasonable limits established by cultural traditions. When the behavior of others falls outside of these tolerable boundaries, our response may be consternation, frustration, or anger. Alternatively our response may show sympa­thy, patience, and consolation.

Neither end aids the teacher in the classroom who may have to cope with cultural difference on a day-to-day basis. Instead the teacher must systematically investigate the cultural background of her students in order to comprehend the impact such a background has on the way in which the child perceives the world and is accustomed to learning and being taught. On the basis of such investigations the school and the teacher can promote continuity for the child and increase the likelihood that recog­nized and unrecognized activities will transmit the intended messages to the learner.


1    See, for example, Beatrice B. Whiting, ed. Six Cultures, Studies of Childrearing. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1963. Also, Margaret Mead and Martha Wolfenstein. Childhood in Contemporary Cultures. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1955.

2   George F. Kneller. Educational Anthropology, An Introduction. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1964.

3    Henry G. Burger. Ethnopedagogy: A Manual in Cultural Sensitivity, with Techniques for Improving Cross-Cultural Teaching by Fitting Ethnic Patterns. Albuquerque, New Mexico: Southwestern Coop­erative Educational Laboratory, 1968, p. 88.

4   George A. Pettitt. Prisoners of Culture. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1970, p. 133.

5   See, for example, Dorothy Lee. Freedom and Culture. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1959.

6   Jacquetta Hill Burnett, "Ceremony, Rites, and Economy in the Student System of an American High School," Human Organization, Vol. 28, No. 1, Spring 1969, pp. 1-10.

7   Florence Kluckholn and Fred L. Strodbeck. Variations in Value Orientations. Evanston, Illinois: Row, Peterson and Company, 1961.

8   Philip W. Jackson. Life in Classrooms. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1968, p. 34.

9   Jules Henry. Culture Against Man. New York: Vintage Books, 1963, p. 289.

10    Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson. Pygmalion in the Classroom: Teacher Expectation and Pupils' Intellectual Development. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1968.

11    Robert V. Dumont, Jr. and Murray L. Wax, "Cherokee Society and the Intercultural Classroom," Human Organization, Vol. 28, No. 3, Fall 1969, p. 219.

12   Alan R. Seals, et al. Culture in Process. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1967.

13  Ibid.

14   Richard A. King. The School at Mopass: A Problem of Identity. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1967.

15   Harry F. Wolcott. A Kwakiutl Village and School. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1967.

16   John Singleton. Nichu: A Japanese School. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1967.

17   Richard Warren. Education in Rebhausen: A German Village. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1967.

18    See, for example, Jacquetta Hill Burnett, "Culture of the School: A Construct for Research and Explanation in Education," paper presented at the American Educational Research Association, Minneapolis, Minnesota, 1969. Also, Peter S. Sindell, "Anthropological Approaches to the Study of Education," Review of Educational Research, Vol. 39, December 1969.

19   Burnett, Ibid.

20   Alan R. Beals. Culture in Process, op. cit., p. 9.

21    See, for example, Louis M. Smith and William Geoffrey. The Complexities of an Urban Classroom: An Analysis Toward a General Theory of Teaching. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1968. Also, G. Alexander Moore. Realities of the Urban Classroom; Observations in Elementary Schools. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1967.

22   Philip Jackson. Life in Classrooms, op. cit., p. 4.

23   Harry F. Wolcott, "The Elementary School Principal: Notes from a Field Study." Eugene, Oregon: Center for Advanced Study of Educational Administration, University of Oregon, 1969, Mimeo­graph.

24    Louis M. Smith, "The Microethnography of the Classroom," Psychology in the Schools, Vol. 4, No. 3, 1967, pp. 216-21.

25   Thomas J. La Belle and Val Rust, "Control Mechanisms and Their Justification in Pre-School Classrooms," Comparative Group Studies, Vol. 4, No. 2 (In Press).

26   Margaret Mead, "Our Educational Emphasis in Primitive Perspective," The American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 38, May, 1943.

27   Thomas Sanders, "The Paulo Freire Method," American Universities Field Staff, Fieldstaff Reports: West Coast South American Series, Vol. 15, No. 1, 1968.

28   Henry G. Burger. Ethnopedagogy, op. tit., p. 135.

29   See, for example, Jacquetta Hill Burnett, "Event Analysis in the Microethnography of Urban Classrooms," paper presented in the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association, November, 1968, Mimeograph.

30   Thomas J. La Belle, "What's Deprived About Being Different?" Elementary School Journal, Vol. 72, No. 1, October 1971.

31    Thomas J. La Belle, "Schooling in Cultural Perspective," Peter T. Furst and Karen B. Reed, eds. Stranger in Our Midst. Los Angeles: Latin American Center, University of California, 1970.

32   Paule Henle, "Language, Thought, and Culture," Peter Hammond, ed. Cultural and Social An­thropology Readings. New York: Macmillan, 1964.

33   Henry G. Burger. Ethnopedagogy, op. cit., p. 64.

34   John Gay and Michael Cole. The New Mathematics in an Old Culture: A Study of Learning Among the Kpelle of Liberia. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1967.

35   Rosalie Cohen, "Conceptual Styles, Culture Conflict, and Nonverbal Tests of Intelligence," Ameri­can Anthropologist, Vol. 71 No. 5, October 1969, p. 839.

36   Ibid., p. 843

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 73 Number 4, 1972, p. 519-538
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 1567, Date Accessed: 10/20/2021 3:37:37 AM

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