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The Case For An Anthropological Pedagogy

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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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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James M. Curtis, Ph.D



February 2000

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

call ;"socialization."


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



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



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 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

the classroom.


Curtis, James M. "The Backpack Generation and Art Education," forthcoming

in The Journal of

Aesthetic Education.

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.

Curtis Associates

5531 Doral Drive

Wilmington, Delaware 19808

Telephone: (302) 366-0545

Fax: (302) 366-8651