Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning
Below is the third in a series of selected articles from the
National Teaching and Learning Forum newsletter reproduced here as
part of our "Shared Mission Partnership" announced in Posting #204.
In the article, The Case for an Anthropological Pedagogy, James Curtis
wonders if considering something other than psychology in plotting
pedagogies might get us further in teaching today's students.
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Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning
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THE CASE FOR AN ANTHROPOLOGICAL PEDAGOGY
James M. Curtis, Ph.D
Vol. 9, No. 2
In "Educating the Whole Person: Heart, Body, and Mind," her recent
article in the Forum (V8N5), Virginia S. Lee makes the point that
"Education typically stresses the acquisition of intellectual
skills," and refers to Benjamin Bloom's seminal work on taxonomies
for the domains of learning. For understandable and historically
valid reasons, pedagogy has relied on psychology and the work of
psychologists such as Bloom for its major concepts. Yet the
individualistic emphasis of much American psychology makes it
difficult for psychologists to account systematically for the
cognitive (and thus pedagogical) implications of what anthropologists
WHERE'S THE BEEF?
One can read major studies such as "Transitions Through Adolescence.
Interpersonal Domains and Context," edited by Julia A. Graver , et.
al, and Marsha H. Levy-Warren's "The Adolescent Journey. Development,
Identity Formation, and Psychotherapy," without finding any
indication that American teenagers listen to rap tapes, watch rock
videos or go to movies. I mention this fact not in criticism of these
psychologists, whose work is cogent in its own right, but to make the
point that psychologists are not trained to deal with such essential
aspects of American teenagers' social experience. Yet material
culture (sneakers), rituals (dating, ordering at McDonald's), or
visual images (MTV) constitute the bread and butter of cultural
anthropologists, who would be baffled by the attempt to understand
any society in the depth needed for an effective pedagogy without the
use of such evidence.
It would be unreasonable to abandon psychology and its major
contributions to pedagogy just as it is absurd to abandon the lecture
format completely. However, just as we are beginning to understand
the powerful synergy that we create in the classroom when we
supplement lectures with active learning experiences, we may also
create a similar synergy in pedagogy by supplementing psychology with
WHERE'RE THE FRIES?
An anthropological pedagogy offers exciting potential for fostering
the, "reorientation of undergraduate instruction,"; that Virginia Lee
calls for. Such matters as gender roles and ethnic identity, for
example, play an increasingly important role in pedagogy these days
and their place there might well benefit from the expertise and
perspective of anthropologists in addition to those of psychologists.
A key piece of evidence for the vital role that anthropologists can
play in education is Michael Moffat's book Coming of Age in New
Jersey. College and American Culture. Although its subject is not
pedagogy as such, it is filled with insights that create the
pre-conditions for a holistic pedagogy for the decades ahead.
In the late seventies, Moffatt lived in the undergraduate dorms at
Rutgers as participant-observer of American college life. (Indeed,
briefly he actually passed for an undergraduate.) After conducting
numerous formal and informal surveys, Moffat concluded that a yawning
gulf exists between professors and students. He found that for
professors (and I might add, for virtually everyone who writes about
teaching), "The main course-the essence of college-is its serious
high-minded goals as articulated and understood by its adult
leadersSBut in the students' view of things, not all this broadening
happened through the formal curriculum. At least half of college was
what went on outside the classroom, among the students with no adults
HAVE IT YOUR WAY
And what did this; "at least half," consist of? For Americans who
grew up in the seventies (as well as for those who have grown up in
the nineties) popular culture was a ubiquitous factor of overwhelming
importance. Conrad Phillip Kottak, another anthropologist who studied
undergraduate life in the seventies, reports the following result
from some polls of undergraduates:
In each case, the numbers of University of Michigan students who had
never entered a Protestant, Catholic or Jewish house of worship far
exceeded the number who had never eaten at McDonald's, seen an
episode of Star Trek; or attended a rock concert. If true of young
American generally, as I suspect these are, these highly significant
facts about Americans and their culture suggest many
twentieth-century modifications in American enculturation patterns.
And what is the pedagogical significance of this enculturation by
means of popular culture, many of whose forms educators find
Historically, pedagogical inquiry has emphasized cognitive
development, which is what goes on in the classroom (we hope) and
just happens to be something that psychologists can test.
Anthropologists, however, understand that education is not, and never
can be, purely intellectual and verbal, and that culture and
cognitive development constantly interact. Moreover, culture and
cognition interact in ways that produce classroom behavior and the
ability to learn in the classroom (or the lack thereof). Since this
is the case, effective teaching strategies may take advantage of this
interaction by bringing together what we might loosely call the
professors';"half;" of college and the students',"half," of college.
Such a combination begins to acknowledge all the learning components
of the academic community.
There are many ways to achieve this goal that will produce learning
in the traditional sense. However, because they will inevitably vary
from one discipline to another, let me conclude by considering the
classroom potential of a ritual in which all students have
participated-ordering at McDonald's. Note that right away the topic
offers the great advantage of inclusion. Students know about it,
understand it, and have participated in it-and it doesn't matter
whether or not they have done the reading! Their experience is the
reading to a large extent.
When our students order at McDonald's, they participate in a ritual
that engages the essence of democratically-inclined,
consumer-oriented America. While one can discuss ordering at
McDonald's historically (fast food as a post-World War II
phenomenon), nutritionally (the economic and ecological significance
of beef) and in other ways as well, consider the experience as an
example of ritual discourse, an example with provocative
In middle-class America, it is a major breach of etiquette to
question consumer preferences, as long as they are not obviously
harmful or illegal. Thus, when students order, say, a cheeseburger, a
chocolate shake and a large order of fries, no one has the right to
tell them that they should order a meal that is lower in cholesterol.
Consumer discourse-informed by the slogan, "The customer is
always right,"-is monolithic and therefore extremely limited.
If we take ordering at McDonald's as a formative, paradigmatic
experience for students as consumers, then we have a way of
conceptualizing the recent interest in the, "student as
consumer." While student affairs administrators can, and should,
make the academic environment more "user-friendly,"
everyone in the academy needs to understand that consumer discourse
differs fundamentally from academic discourse, a form of discourse
which is dialogic, rather than monolithic. Academic discourse
requires proof and evidence, while consumer discourse requires none.
Academic discourse acknowledges other authorities, while consumer
discourse does not.
THE CUSTOMER IS ALWAYS RIGHT?
The point is not to disparage consumer discourse,
which would be extremely counter-productive in the classroom, but to
use the differences between consumer discourse and academic discourse
as a way of helping students conceptualize the academic enterprise.
American children grow up in an environment in which parents,
salespeople, and other well-wishers frequently ask them, "Do you
like it?" No matter whether the answer is "yes" or
"no" that answer is a monolithic one and is usually beyond
dispute or discussion. This ritual language of consumerism-let us
call it-is so valorized in American society that students tend to
take its universal validity as a given. Hence, they feel surprised,
puzzled and even betrayed when they find that consumer discourse is
insufficient in the classroom.
We might consider these differences in kinds of discourse from the
perspective of Bloom's levels of cognitive development or those
described in William Perry's Schema, but I hope the benefit of
viewing them as cultural phenomena as well now seems clear.
Our students are students, after all, and they are capable of
learning. It might well be an improvement over more didactic or
consumerist tacks to conceptualize their college experience by
telling them that they have come to college to enhance their
discourse repertoire and to ground that conceptualization in cultural
experience in addition to cognitive distinctions. The academic
experience asks students, not to abandon their ability to answer the
question, "Do you like it?" (people will be asking them
that question all their lives), but to supplement it with the ability
to answer another question: "Do you understand it?" As we
know (and students must learn), in an academic environment, and in
the workplace as well, the answer to that question requires more than
a "yes" answer-it requires a demonstration, which may take
the form of a proof, a reasoned discussion, or a display of skill.
In my experience, students respond very positively to such
conceptualizing based on analogies with cultural experience; I
believe they do so because it follows good anthropological practice
to achieve an educational goal. It acknowledges, accepts
non-judgmentally, and draws on, their own enculturation, and then
uses the principles-not the specifics-of that enculturation to
draw them out. After all, "to draw out" is the root meaning
of the verb "to educate." This kind of anthropological
pedagogy draws on the sum of students' life experiences-not just
their testable cognitive skills-to create effective interactions in
Curtis, James M. "The Backpack Generation and Art Education," forthcoming
in The Journal of
Graver, Julia A. et al., eds. Transitions Through Adolescence.
Interpersonal Domains and
Context. Mahweh, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1996.
Kottack, Conrad Phillip."Anthropological Analysis of Mass
Enculturation," in Conrad
Phillip Kottak, ed. Researching American Culture. Ann Arbor:
U. of Michigan Press, 1982, pp. 40-74.
Lee, Virginia. "Educating the Whole Person: Heart, Body, and Mind,"NTLF",
Volume 8, Number
56, 1999, pp. 1-5.
Levy-Warren, Marsha H. The Adolescent Journey. Development, Identity
Formation, and Psychotherapy.
Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1996.
Moffatt, Michael.Coming of Age in New Jersey. College and American Culture.
New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1989.
James M. Curtis, Ph. D.
5531 Doral Drive
Wilmington, Delaware 19808
Telephone: (302) 366-0545
Fax: (302) 366-8651