PDF Hendry, J. 2013. Teaching Anthropology In Schools. Global Ethnographic.

Joy Hendry

Professor Emerita, Oxford Brookes University
MacGeorge Fellow, University of Melbourne

In the autumn of 1910, anthropology was offered for the first time as a subject examined at the Advanced (A) level of the General Certificate of Education to pupils in their last two years of secondary education in England. It was not the first time the subject had been offered in English schools, for the International Baccalaureat (IB) has been offering it for years, but only a minority of English pupils are able to opt for the IB path, so it was limited to those who were mostly anyway from an international background. The A level is the standard school leaving examination in the UK, and if schools can find the teachers to offer the subject, it could potentially be available throughout the country in a few years time.

In this essay, I would like to consider some of the benefits of teaching anthropology in secondary schools. I will also mention some of the possible problems that may arise, but my main argument will be to assess the potential of this innovation for rethinking what anthropology can offer the contemporary world, and how the technology now available to provide resources for such a course may at the same time open up the field beyond its presently limited scope. I will also make one or two suggestions about why it has taken a group of practitioners  whose average age is almost four times that of the potential pupils to come up with the idea!

In my school days, anthropology was available in a few universities, but none of my teachers ever mentioned its existence; indeed, they may never have heard of it themselves. I certainly hadn’t. It took me an undergraduate degree in general science, when I used unknowingly to drink in a bar a few floors below one of the most famous anthropology courses in the world, and three or four years of living and working abroad, to discover the discipline that eventually became my career! In those days – known subsequently as the swinging sixties – it was fortunately possible to pick up the discipline in an intensive post-graduate course, at least in Oxford and Cambridge; indeed, Edmund Leach, one of its main proponents in Cambridge at the time expressed the view that the subject should not be taught too early, and Oxford, where I did my own study, only offered anthropology to people who already had a first degree, often in another discipline.

The world has changed a lot since then, and there are now more courses, but many people still have only a vague idea what anthropology is all about. This state of affairs seems to continue, despite the broadcasting, since not long after colour television became readily available, of several excellent series of quite popular television programmes, which drew directly on the work of anthropologists. A few did even feature an anthropologist in front of the camera, but many more simply added their name to the credits at the end, and recently, a charming presenter will even act as though they are arriving in a distant location for the first time to learn first-hand the ways of the people who live there . The work that goes into making the arrangements for such a visit is rarely mentioned, though it may often involve more than one anthropologist, including someone who has worked locally, and other TV researchers to find the locations.

A more recent innovation has been the availability, on line, of huge amounts of information about peoples who live in different parts of the world, some recording the work of anthropologists but much of it posted by the people themselves. It is interesting that television producers still tend to emphasise the lack of technology of the exotic peoples they set out to film, while many of them may actually own mobile telephones and have access, at least, to computers and the internet. In this sense, we should perhaps be relieved that anthropology does not get mentioned, for one thing we do need to do is to shake off the image, retained by some who have heard of us, that we all work with “primitive” peoples in far off places.

I would like to argue that if anthropology were to become widely available as an option in the secondary school curriculum, not only in England, but much more broadly, that image could finally be shattered, once and for all. Moreover, the value of using anthropological knowledge and techniques could also be disseminated at an appropriate age to allow adults in many walks of life to make decisions about the people they meet based on some basic understanding of difference and diversity, rather than on uninformed prejudice. With many years of teaching anthropology at an undergraduate level behind me, I can vouch for the transformation that occurs in the young people we encounter there, but they are still too few, and wouldn’t it be great to magnify that level of change?

So how could teaching in schools bring some of these changes about?

Well, first of all, schools in Britain, as in many other countries, are full of diversity themselves these days, so that children growing up in the same classroom may well discover considerable variety among their home backgrounds. The A level syllabus is designed not only to introduce aspects of the lives of people living elsewhere, but also to encourage sharing and discussion in the classroom about the lives of pupils taking the course. Examples for the illustration of the principles of anthropology are also taken from different living environments in many countries, from the inner city, through cultivated countryside, to land that has been classified by outsiders as “wilderness” but which may well sustain whole communities. Thus children in a variety of locations can compare their own lives with residents of a similar background elsewhere.

A project in the second year of the A level includes some hands-on research, which can be done out in the local community, or even amongst members of the same class. The learning of techniques of research is of course part of this process, but at the same time, it cannot fail to make the participants aware of the possibilities for investigation within their own neighbourhood. Class presentations about the research as it proceeds will inevitably bring an increased knowledge of the community to the all the young people taking the course who live there, and if they stay on in the area after they leave school, even if they do no further anthropology, they will be better equipped to deal with one another in their future working lives.

Indeed, they should be better equipped to deal with people in many walks of life, and as many of the school leavers will go on to study quite different subjects, or to move straight into gainful employment, this enhanced knowledge of cultural variety should move with them into all of their academic and non-academic worlds. Anthropology is already taught to a limited extent in courses of nursing, policing, and indeed, teaching, where practitioners are likely to have encounters with those from an increasingly large range of origins for whom the expectations of that encounter may be quite different. Misunderstanding such difficulties could cause embarrassment at the very least, may even lead to violence, and worse, could result in long-term inadequacies in the education of individual children.

Of course, understanding something about the depth of cultural difference that may be encountered does not give these practitioners an inside knowledge of every culture they might encounter, but it can certainly offer hints, and alert them to a variety of possibilities. For example, many languages suppress expressions about intimate parts of the body, and so people may misrepresent the symptoms of an illness or injury, which can then be teased out by a nurse, or other medical practitioner who is aware of the likelihood of such a problem. Teachers with only a minimal amount of anthropological knowledge can also be aware that children apparently making a muddle of the names of their relatives, an issue which could cause hilarity among their classmates, are simply using a different system of classification, quite normal in their own families and linguistic groups.

This kind of understanding may not always be used in a positive way, indeed a little knowledge of other cultural practices can add fuel to the flames of a dispute, or provide resources for those who are intent on bullying their classmates. However, that kind of behaviour will probably take place whether knowledge is accurate or not, and the new more accurate knowledge shared by the wider community of classmates could even help to alleviate some of the problems for victims of such treatment.

There could also be a problem if teachers of the subject are not well prepared, and thus disseminate inaccurate information, or conflate the discipline of anthropology with other, closely related fields such as sociology or religious studies. At present, in the UK, there are few courses that allow teachers to take anthropology while they train, so that qualified teachers may be drawing on a limited background, or even learning anthropology as they go along. However, the pupils signed up for study at the advanced level of the school-leaving certificate in the UK are already rather capable of doing their own reading and research, and it is to be hoped that the field will soon build up a sufficient body of trained teachers to fill the positions as they become available.

As the online journal Global Ethnographic, for which I am writing this piece, picks up on the propensity of the time for students of all ages to turn to the internet for information, it is particularly important that there be help available with selecting, evaluating and interpreting the vast morass of possible websites, blogs and film clips that can be accessed. As mentioned before, there is plenty of information on line about peoples from all over the world, much of it written by themselves, but some written by outside observers who have had only a brief encounter and understand very little. With a modicum of training in a discipline that devotes itself to collecting, interpreting and comparing such information, which we call ethnography, the materials will be in much safer hands.

In general, then, my suggestion is that the introduction of anthropology teaching in secondary schools – in Britain or elsewhere – could add to the sum of general knowledge picked up at that important stage of life a crucial skill for future interaction among people of different cultural heritage that has been sorely lacking in many countries to date. Of course, we have all heard of multiculturalism, it has become a stale subject that has even begun to annoy people in many parts of the world; but few people have an idea about just how different ways of thinking may be, and how those embedded systems of thought may influence the behaviour of those who hold them. This realisation may not immediately help to solve the world’s international disputes, nor will it prevent all future wars, but it will certainly increase the number of people who understand different perspectives, and may make them hesitate immediately to classify people as terrorists before they think about the idea that they might see themselves freedom fighters.

I am writing this paper during a brief period of residence in Australia. It is my second one, the first having been some 16 or 17 years ago, and I have encountered a major change of attitude amongst many ordinary people on the streets to the first occupants of the land they regard as their own. When I was here before, I could barely get anyone to speak about the Aboriginal people, except in very negative terms, and even the anthropologists at the university to which I was attached, shied away from their study, preferring to work in more distant locations. This is a very political subject in Australia, and it continues to be so, but it is now one that people at least discuss, there are news and discussion programmes about the issues, and since the institution of “national sorry day” there have been organizations for reconciliation set up all over the country. There may still be a long way to go here, but I feel that I have witnessed the kind of positive change that could be sparked by a greater knowledge of what anthropology is all about.

This is the main reason why I think that a lot of effort has been put into writing the curriculum and setting up the A level by people who have lived through a major part of their lives. We have seen the way that attitudes can change, some for better, some for worse. One of the latter relates, in my view, to our having come of age in those years described as the swinging sixties. It was a time of great hope within Europe for a future that could put the devastation of the two world wars behind us, and move forward into a new, more cooperative age. Although America then went to war in Vietnam, there was much protest and quite a few draft-dodgers. It was no longer a matter of great shame to be a pacifist or to oppose military interference in another country.

The numbers of people around the world who stood up and opposed the more recent invasion by Britain and the United States of Iraq indicate that this change has not disappeared, but unfortunately, they were not strong enough to sway their governments. Had there been more people in and around those governments who understood the nature of Iraqi society, who understood the growing impatience in the Middle East and elsewhere with the imperialistic behaviour of the United States, to say nothing of Britain, things could have been very different, in my view. But the point here is that members of my generation have witnessed change within our lives. We enjoyed the era of John Lennon singing “give peace a chance”, but we have seen more bellicose attitudes re-emerge. I don’t know how my colleagues on the committee that devised the A level feel about this subject, but I do know that most of them have witnessed the kind of change I am discussing here.

So, finally, how might anthropology be changed in the light of this innovation? I mentioned earlier the perception held by the general public in the UK that anthropology is all about “primitive” people who live in far off places. Another view, held widely and way beyond the UK, is the association of anthropology with the colonial endeavour. Worse, and partly because of this idea, it is regarded negatively by many of the descendants of the people with whom anthropologists have in the past worked, and who may now choose to study indigenous or native studies if they share our interests, maybe because they feel that the approach will be more respectful of their ways of life.

I propose then that the introduction of anthropology into secondary education may help to banish these stereotypes to the history of the field, but may also give us an opportunity to think about new ways in which our research can be carried out in a respectful fashion. The nature of the research endeavour is usually somewhat hierarchical, for it is difficult to engage the people we call “informants” without knowing more about the discipline than they do, and without therefore adopting a superior stance. It is a false stance, of course, because we wouldn’t be doing the research with them if they didn’t have knowledge that we need, and that we hope they will share with us, so in fact one way round this problem is to ensure that the people we work with realise that we are the ones who are learning from them. One of my favourite phrases in Japan, for example, is that I might be a professor in the UK, but I am always a student in Japan.

The classroom context gives us a new opportunity to think about these relationships, and to engage young people studying the discipline with building new techniques of working. In almost any part of the world these days, classes are multicultural, or at least shared by people from varied backgrounds, so that conversations within the learning environment can be built on diverse experiences as the pupils make progress in learning what anthropology is all about. Children who might normally struggle to keep up, perhaps because they have recently moved to the country with their parents and are not as fluent as others in the local language, can suddenly offer something of great value to the class. What a coup for the offspring of asylum-seekers, for example, and the same could be said for children of Aboriginal or Native origins in a multitude of countries where their families have for generations been subjected to discrimination.

As we offer opportunities for disadvantaged children to achieve a sense of value in their own worth, the discipline at large can learn from their experiences. I am not suggesting that we invite A level students to submit papers to academic journals — far from it – my idea is rather that the discourses of the discipline can be opened up to all kinds of everyday communication which will undoubtedly appear in online media such as blogs, tweets and other media as yet to be invented. Anthropology may therefore at last infiltrate the conversations of the general public in a fashion that ensures a more accurate place for it and its value in the virtual and real worlds of the 21st. century!


1. The syllabus was initially devised over the previous three years by the Education Committee of the Royal Anthropological Institute, headed by Hilary Callan, director of the Institute during that period, but now retired, and Brian Street, who chaired the committee, also due to retire! Other members include Judith Okely, C.W. Watson, and Barry du Four, all of an age not far removed from theirs, as far as I can tell!

2. The Bruce Parry series, named Tribe is one such example, and it was only when Bruce was interviewed on a radio programme (Excess Baggage with Sandy Toxwith) that he mentioned, with some gratitude, the prior work done by anthropologists who have worked in the areas he visits to set up the programme with the local people.






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