An Anthropologist's View of Curriculum Change

by Jules Henry - 1961

Beginning with autobiographical material, the author then discusses the subject of role conflict and the new emphasis on mathematics and science in the elementary schools.

I HAVE BEEN informed, especially by those who disagree with my opinions, that all social scientists should start their writing or speeches by telling what their biases are: whether as children they were happy or deprived; whether their daddies were authoritarian; whether they were breast or bottle fed, etc. One anthropologist even argued at a recent international convention that if an anthropologist was working in malaria country he should state what his temperature was when he made his observations. While I cannot report my temperature, I have no objection to telling you something of my life as a school boy in New York City.


I remember that I entered the first grade in P. S. 10 at 116th street and Seventh Avenue. I quickly became president of my class, to my great surprise, received a red ribbon as token thereof, and was addressed as "Mr. President" by my fellows. My glory did not last very long, however, for I was a restless child and therefore talked too much for a president. I remember, also, that one day we were asked to pick large cards with letters on them from the teacher's desk to spell a word. I was almost paralyzed with fright and confusion, but selected three letters at random. Although they turned out prophetically to spell w-a-r, I could not receive credit for that word because "we hadn't had it yet." My selection was an off-beat response that did not fit the syllabus. The teacher's decision seemed unreasonable to me, but I let it pass. My father, meanwhile, was eager to have me up-graded, and, without consulting me, prevailed on the school authorities to send me a whole year ahead of myself. I was by this time, however, about to declare war on all teachers, having come to look upon them as enemies. By the time I hit the fourth grade, I was often kept after school and made to write thousands of repetitions of meaningless sentences and words in order to "discipline" me.

An address delivered at a meeting of the Frontiers of Science Foundation in Oklahoma City, December 5, 1959, and published originally in the Foundation's pamphlet Science and Mathematics: Countdown for Elementary Schools.

The family had now moved to the Washington Heights section of New York, and I was enrolled in P. S. 186, where I continued my role of bad boy. I hated school but was always reading "beyond my age level." I loved Homer and Scott because they dealt with the clash of combat. In those days we had to sit upright in school on hard benches with our hands folded before us on the desk or clasped behind our backs. To me the role of the teacher seemed to be that of a persecutor of little boys. When I moved into high school, I had calmed down a bit, but my fundamental attitude toward teachers had not changed, and my primary aim was to thwart them.

In college there was no change until I encountered the great philosopher, Morris R. Cohen, whose intellectual brilliance was a transforming light, radiating through the corridors of the City College of New York. Perhaps what I liked best about him was his capacity for demolition—for destroying platitudes—and his refusal to jump on popular bandwagons. At that point things changed, for I recognized for the first time the meaning of intelligence and scholarship and the courageous search for truth.

From all this autobiographical material one can derive the following inferences:

1. That I was a difficult child and hence saw the teacher largely as a disciplinarian.

2. That I am probably still difficult as a man.

3. That when one talks of role conflict, one must remember that children have conflicts as well as teachers.

4. That I may carry over into my appraisal of schools today unresolved childish feelings about them.

5. That great intelligences, like that of Cohen, can compel the reorientation of young minds by their mere existence and presence and by their passion for truth.

6. That I may, therefore, over-emphasize the power of intelligence in the old to transform the young.

I have included this autobiographical note for the purpose of reminding us at the outset that we have always to deal with the particular child and his idiosyncracies.


If we turn now to the subject of role conflict and the new emphasis on mathematics and science in the elementary schools and ask what a role is, we discover that beneath this jargon term there lives a very simple idea: a role is what people do. On the other hand, the term role implies impersonation, also. Thus, when I say a man plays the role of father, I mean he washes dishes, helps take care of baby, does the shopping, earns the money for the family to live on, and loves his wife and children. I may also mean, however, that he impersonates a father but is really not one in the deeper sense of the term. But the latter meaning of role is not the usually intended one. A good father is a man who wants to be a father and enjoys being one, who finds pleasure in the role. A bad father might be one who, though deriving some pleasure from fatherhood, prefers to be something else, too—perhaps a Don Juan. Such a man suffers from role conflict; he desires to do two mutually incompatible things. Thus, when we talk of role conflict in teaching we mean that the teacher is doing two or more mutually contradictory things.

We can readily understand that mutually incompatible tendencies can develop because a person is torn within himself, like the man who wants to be a father and a playboy; or like the teacher who wants to be sweet to her children and knock their heads together. These are personal, idiosyncratic characteristics, rooted in the individual's intimate background. On the other hand, there are mutually incompatible tendencies that harass entire populations and which have their foundations in the social life of an entire people and in the spirit of the time.

These also can create role conflict, and to comment about them, I must sketch my present impressions of the American dilemma and of some contrasts between ourselves and the Russians, the contemporary American's pretended conscience.


Because of the needs of our economic institutions, because of low pay for many kinds of jobs, and because of status considerations, the average American does what he has to do by way of a life-time occupation rather than what he would want to do. It is the old story of the business tycoon who really wanted to be a writer, of the doctor who wanted to be a painter, of the lathe-operator who had dreams of being a TV performer, or even of the corporation lawyer who wanted to be an anthropologist but figured, quite correctly, that as an anthropologist he'd have a car with a shorter wheel base than as a corporation lawyer. Thus, Mr. Average American enters the occupational structure doing what he has to do rather than what he has dreamed of doing, and he buries his life-time disappointment under a mountain of consumer goods, while his yearning toward self-realization becomes channeled into strivings for status. Fundamentally, then, the average American has immolated his Self under the high-rising standard of living, and pretends to his unconscious that his Self is satisfied with status striving.

On top of this are planted the exuberant flowers of fun, for fun is the American lotus, the food of forgetfulness; and what one strives to forget is both the buried dreams and the tensions of the status system. Where does American education fit here? The American system is torn between the old ideals of self-denial and achievement, and the new impulse toward permissiveness and toward ministering to the inner needs of the young child, who is really but the embodiment of our buried selves. There is no doubt that the latter ideal is dominant and will continue to be for a very long time.

This being the case, increased emphasis on the teaching of mathematics and science may get a hard time, both from the teachers and the children, and many teachers will be torn between the impulses to defeat a new system that tells them and the students to work hard and their impulses to make school a place for comfortable living, low frustration level, and the learning of fun. Hand and hand with all this is a characteristic that marks an ever-increasing number of our people—loss of interest in rising to meet a challenge.


I am afraid, meanwhile, that the present drive toward more and more mathematics and science derives not so much from a conviction that these are good in themselves, but rather from a feeling that we must follow the mandates of our brand new conscience, the Soviet Union. A strong conscience derives from a beloved but at the same time admonitory and critical parent who, while giving us the good things of life, does not permit deviation from a relatively strict moral code. This image of the parent as at once good and admonitory is called conscience or superego. Since the superego derives from something close, intimate, beloved, and correct, it is real to the child and compels obedience because it is so. When we look across the Atlantic, however, we see an image that has some of the admonitory and critical qualities of a father but lacks the love and the goodies that go with him. This image of the Soviet Union is like a conscience to the American people, who, having plunged into a life of indulgence to cover their disappointments, feel uneasy and guilty about having done so. The Soviet Union, by its very existence amid austerities and self-denial and by the achievements it has reared upon this base, is like an accusing finger—like an accusing conscience—before the American people. But, since it is far away, and since it has done us no good, Americans will not feel bound to these implied admonitions. Meanwhile, since we fly to fun and self-indulgence from hard work because deeper needs draw us away from the path of sweat left by the toiling Russians, the pressures placed on American teachers and students to work hard at mathematics and science may encounter resistance because the moral implications of the Russian way of life are antagonistic to the American configuration.

Within this conflict between two life styles for the allegiance of the child, one can discern the possibility of varieties of role conflicts. Let us imagine, for example, the situation of a principal who runs a town school that is a mixture of children who will not go to college, largely children of unskilled and semi-skilled manual and service workers, and those who will go to college, i.e., a few children of skilled and semi-skilled manual and service workers, but mostly offspring of the business, professional, and executive group. Let us assume that the school has for years been under a board of education that has concerned itself largely with problems like the allocation of funds for playgrounds, stationery, and the janitorial staff. The school has done the best it could with its heterogeneous student population as the teachers moved in the direction of the life-adjustment attitude toward education: being mothers to the children, helping to meet their needs as they saw them. Suddenly, under the new impact, the doctor, the engineer, and the owner of the town shoe factory, the most aggressive and powerful members of the board, put pressure on the superintendent to give the schools a new coat of scientific paint.

In attempting to imagine the consequences of this, let us consider the homes of the worker's children. When Johnny comes home with his new mathematics problems, daddy, who used to be able to help him, is now powerless and may see his child receive one D or F after the other. Johnny, who used to do fairly well adding up pears and apples, is now lost among associative and commutative discriminations. He becomes deficient in math month after month. His parents may go rarely to PTA meetings, but they express their anxiety in monthly interviews with Johnny's teacher. When Johnny's case is repeated throughout the school, the teachers, with their sensitivity to the children's emotional problems, report the matter to the principal, who tells the superintendent, who, of course, reports to the board. On the board, the Common Man fathers say, "I told you so," and the upper class fathers fume, feeling that the workers' children may hold back theirs.

All of this is first of all a conflict in life styles, a clash between those who have learned to channel their impulses toward minimal effort—toward comfort and security—on the one hand, and those who have been trained to status striving, maximum drive, and the big life-gamble, on the other. Second, it is a struggle between two status groups, one of which feels that since it has the better education and higher social position, it knows best what is good for the community's children. Third, it is a collision between different orientations toward children, one of which worries about the child's over-all adjustment to life, whereas the other takes a more Spartan view, emphasizing rigor and discipline. In the midst of it all, of course, the putative source of the new impulse, the Soviet threat, is forgotten.


Wrapped warmly in its cocoon of good living, of fun, of self-indulgence, and lulled by an existence that has not known real devastation, it is impossible for the American people as a whole to imagine realistically a "Soviet threat." Russia, our press to the contrary notwithstanding, is largely a distant drum to the American people. Nothing more clearly supports this than the recent (1958) government publication, "Educating Children In Grades Four, Five, and Six." There, in an authoritative publication, the work of the U. S. Office of Education, there is not a word about the relation of American education to the Soviet. What makes this circumstance particularly interesting is the fact that it is based on careful exploration of the opinions of educators at all levels throughout the United States. Contrary to whatever the press may say, educators at the grass roots have not bought the packaged Soviet nightmare.

The research staff of the U. S. Office of Education first analyzed the available literature on the subject and then held "Forty one-day conferences (with educators) including 1,300 persons from 415 school systems in 68 communities of 35 States and the District of Columbia. Large and small urban schools, consolidated and rural schools, and schools made up of different racial and socio-economic groups were represented. . ." Since the conferees seem to have little concern for what was happening in the Soviet sphere, let us try, by selecting some quotes, to find out what they were concerned about:

Educators attempting to interpret various viewpoints and suggestions in terms which are meaningful to teachers ... and sensing their responsibility to the developing and individual patterns of growth and achievement, clarify their goal as that of helping children achieve continuous development along all lines of growth, the physical, social-emotional, and intellectual, toward happy and effective membership in our society (p. 43).

This being the stated goal of education, the following tasks must be performed in order to accomplish it:

To utilize for motivation of learning in all desirable directions the overwhelming desire of children, ages 9-11, to be active, to be accepted, to make friends among peers, to become more independent of adults, to explore, to make and do, and to acquire values to live by.

To provide environmental influences which motivate good physical, social-emotional, and intellectual growth.

To understand and utilize the differences among children to make it possible for each child to grow and to learn the understandings and skills necessary for constructive citizenship in our culture (p. 45).


Actually, these quotes do not give the full flavor of the monograph. What really pervades it is not so much the emphasis on citizenship—a concept, by the way, which is never defined in the book—but rather on the needs of the child. That is to say, the book is child centered. While the volume was going through the press, meanwhile, Premier Khrushchev was addressing the Soviet educators as follows:

We must reconstruct decisively the system of rearing our younger generation in the schools. The most important thing here is that we have a slogan and that this slogan be sacred for all children entering our school, namely, that every child must prepare for useful work, for participation in the building of a Communist society. And any work—whether in a factory or on a collective farm, in a machine-tractor station, in a repair tractor station, or in an office—any honorable work for the good of society is sacred work and necessary to every man who lives in and enjoys the benefits of society. Every man who lives in a Communist society must contribute his mite of labor to the building and the further development of this social order. To prepare our younger generation for life, for useful labor, to cultivate in them profound respect for the principles of socialist society, this must become the foremost task of our school. . .(1, p. 39).

The Communist transformation of society is indissoluably linked with the rearing of a new man in whom spiritual wealth, moral purity, and physical perfection will be harmoniously combined . . .

The Soviet Union has advanced to one of the first places in the world with respect to the development of science and technology. In the quantity and quality of the training of specialists, it has surpassed all other countries. When the first Soviet artificial earth satellite burst into the expanses of the cosmos, many sober and thoughtful people in the capitalist world acknowledged that the broad development and the high level of secondary and higher education in the USSR were among the primary causes responsible for the brilliant victory of Soviet science and technology. The American press wrote in alarm that the Soviet secondary school devotes much more time and attention to the study of mathematics, physics, chemistry, and biology than the American. The United States of America, whose ruling circles boasted of their leading position (in science and technology), now declare that the USA must overtake the Societ Union in the training of specialists of all kinds. This is an achievement about which one can be proud (1, pp. 33-39).

The significance of these remarks seems to be the following: (1) Soviet emphasis on science is part of a broad program of integration of the individual into the State system. (2) Soviet emphasis on science is a phase of Soviet emphasis on moral character building, of the building of what used to be called in this country the tough Puritan virtues. (3) Soviet emphasis on science is one facet of the total integration of study in school with work in factory, farm, or office after school. (4) Soviet emphasis on science is part of a fierce program of social construction. (5) Soviet emphasis on science is State-oriented, not child-oriented. Looked at another way, the Russians see the growth of the child taking place through his contribution to the State system; Americans see the child's social contribution materializing out of his growth as an individual.


What I derive from these comparisons is the possibility of the development, among teachers who feel hard pressed, of a sense of being railroaded, through an overstrong and sudden emphasis on science and mathematics, into something akin to the Russian pattern. Trained as they have been to put the needs of the child first, some will surely look sourly at a program they consider to be designed to put missiles before mothering. As a matter of fact, whatever conflict develops within the breast of the American school teacher over this issue will come not so much because she is asked to do two mutually contradictory things at once—make happy children and make them work hard—but because she is compelled to orient herself toward two mutually contradictory life-styles.

Were we to be really successful in this reorientation of American education, the whole brilliant, chromium-plated, neon-lit circus of American life would be threatened. If, miraculously, overnight, we should create a generation of mathematical and physical whizzes, of children dedicated to learning and to striving for the moon in the sky rather than the pie, the whole structure of our society would be swept away. If the impulses to self-indulgence and fun were arrested in their wild drag-race down the highways of consumption by the cops of science and austerity, who would buy the Cokes, the rock-'n-roll records, the jalopies, the brushed wool sweaters, the Ivy league shirts and pants, and the Persian Melon nail polish? Who would watch TV, listen to the radio, or go to the movies? Where, oh where, would be the billions the teen-agers pour into self-indulgence every year? They would spend it on books! And what adults they would be! As adults, would they buy a new car every third year? Would they be interested in the lavender refrigerator, the yellow telephone, etc., etc.? Consumption of the candy of life would drop severely among a population dedicated to all-out scientific warfare, and with that drop, the consumption and buying patterns that keep our industrial system going would fall disastrously.


Meanwhile, there is in Khrushchev's speech one terribly important word that occurs several times and which we must not overlook. That is the word sacred. Using the term as he does, he makes of Communism a sacred system in the literal sense and hence, by implication, makes of education and of work a kind of sacramental initiation into Soviet society as a religious system.

The history of education in all the great civilizations shows beyond question that the status of teachers has always been high when they have dealt with sacred things but that it has been low when they handled things not sacred. Whether it be the rabbi in the eastern European Jewish village, the robed Chinese tutor in the traditional school before the revolution, or the sheik in the village kuttab of contemporary Egypt, giving his lessons in the Koran, the status of the teacher of the sacred has been high; whereas his counterpart who deals with the workaday, pedestrian aspects of life—the profane, in the language of anthropology—has always had to struggle for recognition. What the Russians have done in tying teachers to a sacred system is to put them beyond ordinary folk and to give them the dignity of the ages, high salaries, and status. This being the case, the teacher there cannot help dedicating himself without role conflict to whatever duty the State assigns him. He is a holy practitioner who joyfully bends his ear and his neck to the will of the sacred system, for whatever he does in conformity with its will can only glorify him. He is a parish priest of the new order.

But the teacher in our society can hope for no change whatever in her status at the present time, no matter what she does. Defeats of school bonds are among the lesser events that testify to the fact that the teacher's calling is not sacred to us, is not one to which we will sacrifice a little self-indulgence, a little of the lining of our pockets. We are compelled by a life-style that requires maximum self-indulgence to cleave further to that style because we will not spend the money on what is necessary to change it. There is therefore little in the social reaction to the spectre of the Russian challenge to induce the teacher to change her ways. As a matter of fact, the refusal to make adequate expenditures to show her that we are so scared we are ready even to pay to defend ourselves may, indirectly, convince her that there is nothing to be scared about after all. This being the case, why should she change? Why should she put forth the added effort to become a better mathematics or science teacher and to whip her kids along with her, when the population as a whole, by withholding funds to improve education, proclaims that there is nothing to be afraid of?


I turn finally to some very general considerations of the role of the teacher in the United States. Basically, most teachers are like most people. They have a specific amount of work to get through during the day, and they devote little abstract thought to their role. They tend to be preoccupied with the lesson in hand and to give little attention to the self-conscious ideals of their superiors. At their best, they have a keen interest in the specific work they are covering at the moment and derive enjoyment from contact with the children. At their worst, they are generally ignorant, have not improved their arithmetic since graduating from elementary school, and look upon children as objects upon which they perform certain routine operations, very much as a mechanic on an assembly line, in order to draw a paycheck at the end of the month.

A teacher's conflict in meeting the demands of the new educational style will thus often derive from the part knowledge plays in her own life. For most Americans, the principal incentive to learn is to gain a position in the occupational system; and to some teachers their own education may have been impersonal and mechanical, something like climbing a long flight of stairs. When they have stumbled panting over the last step, they are, thank heaven, finished! Some teachers, when they have completed the last college course and have their degree, utter a fervent "thank heavens, I'm done with all that; now I can begin to live." This means to stop learning, for learning was never for them a sweet enjoyment in itself, but merely a necessary climb to their occupational certificate. If they are now obliged—always, let us remember, without increased rewards—to learn a new program, I can imagine their being bewildered, for they had all their lives believed that their learning stopped with graduation. They now, on the contrary, must change their role from occupier of an occupational slot to that of climber into a new one. They are almost beginning all over again. "This," they may muse, "is where I came in."


I would like to state where I stand in this new development. When I look at it one way, I say that certainly the teaching of mathematics and the sciences can and ought to be revolutionized. But so ought everything else to be revolutionized. There are, for example, much deeper conflicts ahead of us in teaching that good poetry has been written since Wordsworth and Tennyson, that Athens, at the time of Socrates, was probably just as full of crass materialism as we are, that the Soviet Union has much that we can learn and profit from, that the people of Indonesia are not dirty savages, and that the Negro brain is no different from the white man's. There are much deeper and more meaningful conflicts in making these changes than in increasing the emphasis on mathematics and science.

Looked at another way, it would appear that in the present scramble many of us seem to have lost sight of the fundamental significance of science, which is the ennoblement of the spirit through the search for truth. It will be recalled that in The Republic, Plato cast Socrates in the role of the stubborn searcher for the meaning of virtue. This is still modern man's basic quest, but one to which knowledge of mathematics and science makes little visible contribution. If you could read, as I have, student answers to the question, "What do you think of the TV quiz shows?" you would understand the tremendous sense of alienation from society that has come over many of our youngsters, an alienation from a society against which many of them cry out in anxiety and rage, saying, "You have given us no moral order!" To this I would only comment, "What does it profit us, fellow Americans, if we reach the moon but forsake our soul?


1. Counts, G. Khruschev and the Central Committee speak on education. Pittsburgh: Univer. Pittsburgh Press, 1958.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 62 Number 7, 1961, p. 541-541 ID Number: 3195, Date Accessed: 10/17/2021 8:20:25 AM

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