Cultural Anthropology

The Link between Anthropology and Education

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The educational system is society's attempt to promote stability and ensure its own survival by passing on its insights, ideals, skills, assumptions, and goals to the next generation. This process does not happen in a vacuum. Everything that is happening in the fermentation of society influences the way the curriculum is shaped and delivered. What the students learn, either through the overt messages or the medium through which they are transmitted, will influence the shape of society to come. It is impossible to deny the enmeshment of education with anthropological factors such as culture, economics, health and politics.

The focus of the anthropology of education is cultural transmission. Parents and educators rarely agree with Rousseau's concept of the "noble savage", and perform calculated interventions in what children are learning at critical points throughout their entire developmental process. This is a human process, difficult to control or quantify. Educational studies often lose sight of the fact that education is not about information, but about people, and no two people are alike. "Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted." (Albert Einstein)

When children are taught, as they were in Hitler's regime, that members of a particular group are vermin to be exterminated, they will have a different world view from those who are taught about the essential equality of all people. Cultural literacy is a vital factor in overcoming ethnocentricity and the prejudices that flow from it. The school classroom is not the only influence on young people, of course, but it has a profound effect on growing minds, especially when the information is delivered by well-liked teacher.

The educational icon John Dewey suggested that one of the core values for education was the teaching of democracy, and preparing young people to live in democracy. A concerted program with this focus would lead the students to believe that democracy is the "natural" and best form of government, and they would shape the political life of the nation accordingly.

The recent scientific probe into human monogamy or lack thereof will influence the way sexual education is delivered to the schools. If it assumed that early sexual activity with a variety of partners is normal, the aims of the curriculum will be different than if curriculum experts believe that monogamy is the optimal route to human fulfillment. Changing assumptions about homosexual behavior and other sexual norms will filter through to the students, whether or not the curriculum reflects those assumptions.

At each stage of teaching, what teachers believe about the nature of humankind will influence the way they influence their students. Anthropological issues are very important to our understanding of human experience, organization, and values. Awareness of them allows educators to take a step backwards and see the teaching and learning processes from a wider perspective.

Educational anthropology is a subfield of applied anthropology, studying the ways that educational systems are organized, how they interact with other social factors, how they influence society, and how society influences them. The Council on Anthropology and Education (CAE) is a section of the American Anthropological Association that was founded in 1968 "to advance scholarship in social and cultural contexts and on human learning both inside and outside of schools." Hopefully, the insights gained by anthropologists will help education rise to a new level of insight and inclusiveness. As we attempt to educate young people for a future we cannot predict, we need all the help we can get.

Sources and resources
educational anthropology
Educational encyclopedia

More about this author: Christine G.

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