Education and Culture: Anthropological Studies of Learning and Schooling

Anthropology 421 and 521

Education and Culture:
Anthropological Studies of Learning and Schooling

University of Michigan-Dearborn

Winter 2001

Instructor: Kathryn Anderson-Levitt


Office: CASL Annex Apt. 29, upstairs (Let me know if you have a problem with stairs.)

Office hours: Thursdays 5:30-6:00 in Mrs. B’s; MW 1:30-2:30; other days or times by appointment. Visits to plan exercises, discuss exams, or simply discuss ideas from the course are welcome.

Voicemail: (313) 593-5049

An introduction to anthropology or sociology is highly recommended as background.

Questions and goals

How and where do people learn? What kind of deliberate learning/teaching takes place outside of schools? Why are there schools, and how is schooling culturally organized? Why do school experiences tend to vary by “race,” social class and gender? What insights does anthropology bring to practical problems of learning and teaching in U.S. schools?

At the end of the course, I hope you will . . .

  • understand the place of schooling within the broader phenomenon of education/learning through history and across cultures.
  • be able to analyze the organization and functions of schooling–and of particular schools and classrooms–in your own society.
  • be able to make a sophisticated and well-supported contribution to the public debate about race, social class, gender and multiculturalism in U.S. schools.

Graduate students who are already working as educators will bring these questions to bear on their own future or current work situations.


Read one of the following books, as discussed during the first class meeting:

Mead, Margaret. 1928. Coming of age in Samoa. New York: Morrow Quill Paperbacks.

OR Lewis, Catherine. 1985. Educating hearts and minds: Reflections on Japanese preschool and elementary education. New York: Cambridge.

OR Heath, Shirley Brice 1983. Ways with words: Language, life and work in communities and classrooms. New York: Cambridge.

OR MacLeod, Jay. 1987. “Ain’t no making it”: Leveled aspirations in a low-income community. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

You will be responsible for reading two assigned readings each week from the texbooks and coursepack. You will turn in reading notes on one of the two readings almost every week. See details below.

Levinson, Bradley, et al., editors. 2000. Schooling the symbolic animal. Rowman & Littlefield.

Frank, Carloyn. 1999. Ethnographic eyes. Heinmann.


Page, Reba. 1987. Lower-track classes at a college-preparatory high school: A caricature of educational encounters. In George Spindler & Louise Spindler, eds. Interpretive ethnography of education at home and abroad, pp. 447-474. Ablex.

Vogt, Lynn A., Cathie Jordan, & Roland G. Tharp. 1993. Explaining school failure, producing school success: Two cases. In Jacob, Evelyn, & Jordan, Cathie, eds. 1993. Minority education: Anthropological perspectives, pp. 53-65. Ablex.

Osborne, A. Barry. 1996. Practice into theory into practice: Culturally relevant pedagogy for students we have marginalized and normalized. Anthropology and Education Quarterly 27(3): 285-314.

Foster, Michèle. 1992. Sociolinguistics and the African-American community: Implications for literacy. Theory Into Practice 31(4): 303-311.

Foster, Michèle. 1990. The politics of race: Through the eyes of African-American teachers. Journal of Education 172(3): p. 123-41.

Ortiz, Flora Ida. 1988. Hispanic-American children’s experiences in classrooms: A comparison between Hispanic and non-Hispanic children. In Lois Weis, ed.Class, race and gender in American Education, 63-86. Albany: SUNY.

Delpit, Lisa D. 1992. Acquisition of literate discourse: Bowing before the master? Theory Into Practice 31(4): 296-302.

Fordham, Signithia. 1999. Dissin’ “the standard”: Ebonics as guerilla warfare at Capital High.Anthropology and Education Quarterly 30(3):272-293.

Goodenough, Ruth Gallagher. 1987. Small group culture and the emergence of sexist behavior: A comparative study of four children’s groups. In George Spindler & Louise Spindler, eds. Interpretive ethnography of education at home and abroad, pp. 409-444. Ablex.

Mehan, Hugh, Lea Hubbard, & Irene Villanueva. 1994. Forming academic identities: accommodation without assimilation among involuntary minorities.Anthropology & Education Quarterly 25(2):91-117.

D’Amato, John. 1993. Resistance and compliance in minority classrooms. In Jacob, Evelyn, & Jordan, Cathie, eds. 1993. Minority education: Anthropological perspectives, pp. 181-207. Ablex.

Graduate students:

Find three additional articles that suit your own interests from the Anthropology and Education Quarterly or from unassigned readings in the Levinson text. Turn in graduate reading notes for each. Alternatively, you may read another book-length case study in the anthropology of education and write a report. Consult with me when choosing a book.

Tentative schedule

Week Readings assigned for the week
  1. Anthropology, education, and culture
Geertz. Henry. (no reading notes required)
  • Learning as changing participation
Mead. Becker.

(Recommended: Eisenhart, 24)

  • “Education” as deliberate intervention in learning
Cohen. Rival.

Book panel: Coming of age in Samoa.

  • Ethnography of learning and schooling
Frank ch. 1, ch. 3.
  • How is schooling organized?
Frank ch. 4, ch. 7.

Book panel: Educating hearts and minds.

  • What do schools do? The “modernizing” function.
Ethnographic exercise due February 15.

Reed-Danahay. Bledsoe.

(Review Rival and Cohen.)

  • What do schools do? The “sorting” function.
If you are interested in primary education:

Eder. Mehan.

If you are interested in secondary education:

Connell. Page.*

  • Class and racial/ethnic patterns 1: Not deficit but difference.
Heath. Vogt.*

(Recommended: Osborne.* Velez-Ibañez. Foster, “Socioliguistics…”*)

Book panel: Ways with words.

  • Semester break
  • Class and racial/ethnic patterns 2: Racism and “reproduction.”
Foster.* Ortiz.*

(Recommended: Delpit.*)

  • Class and racial/ethnic patterns 3: Students’ “oppositional culture.”
Ogbu. Fordham.*

Book: Ain’t no makin’ it.

Written book notes due by March 22.

  • What about gender?
Goodenough.* Eisenhart & Holland.

(Recommended: Fordham, “Those loud …”)

  • So how do we structure schools to nurture learning by everyone?
Mehan et al.* D’Amato.*
  • Catch up or writing day.
  • Recap on schooling and learning.
Educational autoethnography due April 19.
*coursepack article


Reading Notes

From weeks 2 through 13, you will read two assigned readings a week. Every week during that period, write up “reading notes” on one of these readings. (See separate handout.) There are 11 weeks of readings; you may take two weeks “off” from writing (not reading!). In other words, I will collect a total of 9 reading notes from you, for a total of 90 points.

Graduate students only: Turn in three additional “Graduate reading notes” on articles from the Anthropology and Education Quarterly or unassigned readings from our texts or coursepack that meet your own interests. The Anthropology and Education Quarterly is in our library. You may browse tables of contents and abstracts of recent issues at Alternatively, you may read one additional book-length case study instead of three additional articles. Consult with me on finding a book appropriate to this course that would suit your particular interest.


Ethnographic Exercise

Using Frank’s book and our class discussions as a guide, you will practice doing ethnography either on an instance of (possible) learning or on something that happens in or around schools. You will either conduct an ethnographic observation or conduct an ethnographic interview with an informant. This exercise will require a minimum of one hour observing or interviewing “in the field” plus write-up time.

Option 1. Learning outside of school. Several of our authors (Becker, Mead, Rival, Eisenhart) suggest that people learn informally “through their increasing participation in ongoing social activities” (Rival, p. 115). Therefore, if you observe ongoing activity in which a less-than-expert person is participating, you are liable to see learning going on.

For this option, observe such an activity, carefully separating your detailed observational notes from your interpretations. In your paper, describe what was going on in this situation. Was learning happening, in your interpretation? Justify your answer in terms of your observations.

Alternatively, you may seek to understand the learning process by interviewing someone who is new to a scene–for instance, a new member of a club, someone facing their first internet connection, a new driver–about their learning experience. Remember, if this is “ongoing activity,” your informant might not recognize their participation as “learning.” On the other hand, novices are often better than experts at making cultural knowledge explicit, that is, at describing what they do and do not know or know how to do.

In either case, write a 3-5 page report including a summary of your findings, personal reflection on what insights you gained, and the relationship of what you saw to what you have been reading in class. Append your actual observation or interview notes. Use pseudonyms for the people and setting observed.

Option 2. Schooling. This assignment should allow you discover firsthand a bit of what goes on in and around schools, whether it involves learning or not.

EITHER make one observational visit to a school. Spend an hour or more at a school. If you have the time, it would be useful to compare two contrasting situations, such as “high” and “low” groups, special vs. regular classes, different tracks, art class vs. math class, or two different lunch periods. You must obtain formal permission from the school to observe.

OR make one visit to a family home or a neighborhood or a community center to learn something about how people in the community see the local school(s). For example, you could attend a Parent-Teacher Organization meeting, watch a family member helping a child with homework, observe parent volunteers at a tutoring center.

OR conduct an ethnographic interview with a student or teacher or parent or someone else with a school connection about some aspect of life in and around schools.

In any case, you must explain fully to the people involved what you are doing and seek their permission.

Seek an unfamiliar situation! Do not go back to observe your “old school” unless you observe with a partner from class who is unfamiliar with the school.Teachers, I strongly encourage you to observe learning outside school or to observe in a community rather than school setting. If you must observe a school, seek an unfamiliar situation. For instance, observe or interview a “lunch lady,” janitor, bus driver, or office secretary. Try following around the principal. Try observing the after-school care program or children as they walk to school.

Write a 3-5 page report including a summary of your findings, personal reflection on what insights you gained, and the relationship of what you saw to what you have been reading in class. Append your actual observation or interview notes. Use pseudonyms for the school and people observed.


Book-Length Ethnography

This assignment gives you the opportunity to explore a detailed study of education, giving full attention to the cultural and social context. In groups of about 5 students, read one of the ethnographies cited on the first page of the syllabus. Your group will be expected to develop a 30-minute class presentation in which you present and discuss the content of the ethnography in a meaningful and interesting fashion. In addition, you will write individual reports (2-3 pages) summarizing the book, evaluating its argument, and reflecting on the insights you gained from it regarding U.S. culture, anthropology, education or yourself.

ALTERNATIVE: Doing your own ethnographic study. In negotiation with me, you may conduct your own mini-ethnographic study of a learning or a schooling situation. You would need to begin early in the term, to clear your project with UMD’s Human Subjects Protection Committee, and to get oral or written consent, as appropriate, from the people with whom you would like to do participant-observation or interviewing.


Educational Autoethnography

This final assignment aims to provoke you to reflect on the learning you have done in this course and to make it personal. Write an autobiographical (or “autoethnographic”) review of your historical and personal encounter with schooling (or with teaching). For example, you might reflect on the kinds of schools you attended (or the kinds of schools where you have taught), or you might describe two or three highlights from your years of school experience. Most importantly, discuss in depth how your own educational history reflects or challenges the various concepts we have discussed in this course.


Reading notes



Ethnographic exercise



Book-length ethnography & presentation



Educational auto-ethnography



Total points




Grades are based on clear and thoughtful expression of ideas, and on your critique or application of concepts from our reading or discussion. Your analysisof what you find is always the most important part. An analysis addresses such questions as, “What does this all mean? Does it make sense and, if so, how? If not, why not? How does it relate to other ideas we have considered? What new questions does it raise?”

For all assignments, writing matters. If you have doubts about your writing, visit the Writing Center in the CASL Annex for advice or editing. Write in clear, correctly spelled and grammatical English. Reading notes may be hand written. For other assignments, use a word processor with a spell checker and grammar checker as aids. Papers with distracting spelling or grammatical errors–particularly run-on sentences or sentence fragments–will not be given credit until revised.

* * *

Note: The University will make reasonable accommodations for persons with documented disabilities. Students should register with the Disability Resource Services Office located in Counseling and Support Services in 1060 UM. You must register with DRS by September 30, 1996, to be eligible to receive services during Fall Term 1996.

* * *

Plagiarism is not acceptable. Do not submit any work in which you represent the words or ideas of someone else (for example, another student, an author of an article or book, an anonymous author on the web) as your own ideas or words. Put quotation marks around all quoted sentences and phrases. Use other people’s ideas (thoughtfully), but cite your sources, paragraph by paragraph or, where appropriate, sentence by sentence.

* * *

Please email me with your correct email address when you have read this syllabus.

Copyright © 2001 Kathryn Anderson-Levitt

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.