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Difficult Collective Deliberations: Anthropological Notes Toward a Theory of Education

by Hervé Varenne - 2007

Background/Context: In the 1970s, Lawrence Cremin urged researchers to remember that education is more than schooling. Few heeded this call, perhaps because of the absence of the theoretical framework needed to make this more than a platitude. As a cultural anthropologist, I argue that education is a fundamental human activity that is infinitely more complex than anything that can happen during learning lessons in school. The argument is a theoretical one bolstered by the case studies included in this special issue.

Policy Context: There are two main strains of research by those concerned with education as something that does not happen solely or even mainly in schools. In anthropology, it has been necessary to be aware of this given the absence of institutions easily recognizable as schools in many of the societies in which anthropologists have worked. But even in this discipline, the emphasis was more on incidental enculturation than on education as deliberate effort. In sociology and related fields, many have looked at nonschool environments as causal to the socialization that appears to be a precondition to success in schools. The point of reference remained schooling.

Purpose: In this analytic article, I pick up two key terms in Cremin’s definition: “effort” and “deliberation.” Through a contrast with Bourdieu’s theory of habitus, I show that both words make sense in terms of an amended take on Garfinkel’s ethnomethodology, Lave’s understanding of learning as movement through differentiated social fields (“communities of practice”), de Certeau’s insistence on “enunciation,” and Rancière’s focus on productive ignorance. I show how all the case studies included in the special issue take us out of the world of early learning and into the world of continued efforts to change both oneself and one’s consociates through often difficult collective deliberations.

Conclusions/Recommendations: Focusing on ubiquitous education about life conditions rather than early socialization or school-based skills reopens the question of the processes that actually constitute the school politically. If religion, ideology, artistic tastes, technologies, and so on, must be seen as developing essentially in and around institutions uneasily controlled by the “public,” then the conversations by school people about schooling (its policies, prerequisites, and consequences) miss what remains most powerful in human life—the continued efforts by all to transform their conditions.

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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 109 Number 7, 2007, p. 1559-1588
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 13812, Date Accessed: 9/28/2021 9:23:24 PM

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About the Author
  • Hervé Varenne
    Teachers College, Columbia University
    E-mail Author
    HERVE 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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