An Anthropological Context

Reading school mission statements, one is struck by the beauty of their language and the loftiness of their goals. If we were to aggregate their content into one idealized example it might look like this: “Our school provides a supportive community while encouraging individuality, nurtures the spirit while challenging the intellect, and inspires a lifelong love of learning while teaching respect, responsibility, compassion, and an appreciation of diversity.” The question is: How exactly are these principles to be integrated into classroom lessons and curricula? 

Educators want to help their students to grow into fully integrated adults whose hearts and minds are united in fulfilling ethical purposes. But how can we build all of the life lessons we find listed in our mission statements into curricula that treat the fluid human experience as a collection of disconnected categories of knowledge (literature, math, science, art. etc.)? What compels students to see the links between math and respect, science and compassion, literature and responsibility, or the ancient Egyptians and themselves? More importantly, how can we find a way to coalesce all of these atomized areas of information into a cohesive and meaningful whole? 

What we are lacking is context, and anthropology can provide it. Anthropological theory supplies an overarching scheme that ties all of human experience together into one coherent system; more than that, it gives us a way to make sense of our world.

Looking Ourselves in the Eyes

Assuming an anthropological point of view requires taking a holistic and cross-cultural approach to answering questions about humanity. Every discipline we think of as distinct — history, geography, economics, religious studies, etc. — has a role to play in the cooperative search for understanding. Adopting such a multifaceted perspective allows us to look past the blinders of our own time and place to see the realities of other lives. It points the way toward reflective self-critique, asking us to reevaluate our curricula and revealing the challenges we have placed in our own paths.

What are the challenges? First, we teach our way of life without naming it — so let’s name it: We are capitalist industrialists living in a state-level society supported by an agricultural base. We study ancient Egypt, ancient Rome, and ancient China without taking note of the fact that we are really only studying our own way of life over and over again. All of these cultures, like our own, were state-level societies established on agricultural and commercial bases, consolidated by territorial expansion through military action, and internally structured by social hierarchies and economic inequalities. This is not the only type of society available for us to study; even today there are people who live according to the old ways. They may herd reindeer like the Chukchi or cattle like the Fulani; they may grow rice in India or potatoes in Peru; they may hunt whales in northern Canada or eland in Namibia. When students ask important questions, we must situate our answers and ourselves in this global and historical context. If we take a cross-cultural approach to every inquiry, we automatically address the fact of global cultural diversity and instill in our students a deep respect for those who differ from themselves. 

Second, we teach academic subjects as if they were discrete categories of information when truly the separation is artificial. The reality of human existence calls for the seamless integration of all forms of knowledge. From a material point of view, nearly every human endeavor owes its birth to the same daily requirement of finding something for dinner. For most of our existence on this earth, we foraged and hunted for a living, using scientific principles of observation and data collection to establish the seasonal cycles of plants and game while calling upon our gods and ancestors for assistance. Necessity being the mother of invention, the advent of farming led to the development of astronomy, math, architecture, writing, and pottery, among other things. In the earliest settled civilizations, planting a crop or building a temple required the coordination of specialists in all of these areas. It is no different today; everything is just as integrated. Producing a space shuttle requires artists, visionaries, writers, and philosophers just as much as it does engineers and mathematicians. Project-based interdisciplinary collaboration is clearly the best way to simulate this in our classrooms. 

Lastly, the words on our mission statements reflect our ideals more than the reality of our lives. To be plain: Our society demands a certain level of education so that adults will be able to provide for themselves and their families through participation in the capitalist industrialist economy. As such, we enjoy an unprecedented level of luxury, safety, and comfort; we also comprise just a small percentage of the world’s population and yet own a large percentage of its wealth. As the prices of our commodities fall, people in other countries get paid less to make them for us. Almost every child in the U.S. wears a garment or owns an item that was produced through the labor of a child in another country. We cannot shirk our responsibility to the developing nations of the world, where the same system that liberates us oppresses others. It is our responsibility as educators to teach these truths or change them. 

An Anthropological Context

It was anthropologist Marvin Harris who, borrowing extensively from Karl Marx, explained that human societies are challenged first and foremost with the necessity of making a living (i.e., finding something to eat) in their environments; there can be no priority that takes precedence over this. As such, whatever method we employ for meeting this fundamental need comes first and all of the other institutions and beliefs in our society flow from it, in support of it. In anthropological terms, the mode of production determines, to a large extent, the shape of things like kinship and inheritance, government and religion. Admittedly, this materialist approach to culture is one among many, but I find it to be extraordinarily useful. 

The earliest humans were foragers and scavengers, eating mostly plant materials, insects, and small animals. Eventually, we became hunters, which demanded certain advances in speech and visual communication, as well as skill in weapons manufacture. This hunter-gatherer way of life lasted approximately 190,000 out of the last 200,000 years, leaving us a cultural legacy of art, technology, and religion. We were so successful at it that we eventually had to give it up, having swelled our populations to the point where it was no longer possible to support ourselves simply by eating whatever we could find. This led to farming, which led, in turn, to permanent settlements, craft specialization, state-level society, and industrialism. 

Harris described five major modes of production that emerged sequentially over the span of human history: foraging (also known as hunting and gathering), horticulture (simple hand cultivation), pastoralism (herding animals), agriculture, and industrialism. His theory of cultural materialism holds that human societies, once they have chosen one of these strategies for survival, must struggle to keep their populations in balance with their available resources; this, in turn, leads to beliefs and practices that support this goal. 

Foragers, for example, live off the land very directly; there is nothing standing between a forager and food, shelter, or clothing. If they are hungry, they gather some plants or catch a fish. If they are cold, they build a fire, make some clothes, and build a shelter. They have no need of government; they own nothing, yet have a right to everything. They are concerned, however, not to have too many children, because there is a fine line between having enough to eat and using up everything that is available. Their culture, therefore, prefers monogamy and places extensive taboos on sex, a two-pronged strategy that helps keep the population down. This approach worked very well for almost the entire span of human existence. 

Around 12,000 years ago, the advent of agriculture brought major changes. While food production in the horticultural mode is limited by a complete lack of technology, agriculture is characterized by the use of animal labor, metal tools, and sophisticated techniques for maximizing crop yields. Farmers produce a lot of food, which leads to a love of children — the more, the better. After all, there is plenty of food to feed them, and lots of work for them to do. Children are tremendous assets to a farming family, contributing mightily to the household economy. They process fibers, grains, milk, and meat; they take cattle to pasture; they plow the fields; and they go to market. Children are so valuable that agricultural societies sometimes practice polygamy, since marrying each man to several women ensures a great flow of offspring. 

Perhaps the most significant change that agriculture brings lies in the fact that suddenly not everyone has to be concerned with obtaining food every day. If you’re a forager, you know exactly what you’re doing tomorrow: you’re going out looking for food. If you live in a horticultural society, you’ll be tending to your crops or doing your seasonal migration on the way to your other crops. If you’re a pastoralist, you’re going to be taking care of your animals. If you live in an agricultural society, however, you could be doing any number of things — you could tend a farm, but you could also be a priest, a warrior, a poet, a shoemaker, or even a teacher. While this burst of specialization frees us to be the things we are today, it puts a series of steps between us and the food we need; suddenly we must work to earn currency to exchange for it. The need for a central government arises in order to ensure that food is made available to those who do not grow it. Inequalities become inevitable as some experience greater success than others. A bureaucracy arises that becomes so essential to the survival of its populace that it often finds justification in a state religion. If the population outgrows its supply of arable land, an army may be sent out to acquire more. 

Today, we live in an industrial mode of production, which may fairly be called a capitalist system. The industrial mode of production is unique in that it is the only one whose primary purpose is not to produce food, but to make profits. While industrialism would, of course, be impossible without an agricultural base, its priorities are utterly different. This is exemplified perfectly by the crops that were once tended by enslaved people in the U.S.: tobacco and cotton. You can’t eat either one of them. 

Significant social changes must occur as agricultural societies move into industrial modes of production. One such change is referred to by sociologists as the demographic transition, which is a toothless way of saying that people have to stop having so many children. While the structure of agricultural life encourages people to have a lot of children, industrialism encourages a reproductive decline; because children must be educated, they don’t work, and they cost a lot of money. America began its life as an agricultural nation, but transformed quickly into an industrial one. The first immigrants to the country were welcomed for their manual labor, but later immigrants were confronted with a different reality. One suddenly needed to be educated and literate in order to make enough money to support one’s family, which ought to be small. This explains some of the American bigotry which greeted Irish Catholic immigrants of the late 19th century: They had no technical skills, they were illiterate, and, to American minds, they had too many children. 

Whatever value we find in our way of life today, we now know that industrial modes of production are environmentally disastrous. As foragers, we humans managed to coexist peacefully with our planet for almost 200 millennia, while, as farmers and industrialists, we’re doing significant damage to it. Intensive corporate agriculture and capitalist industrialism are not endlessly sustainable, largely due to their dependence upon constant growth and the use of non-renewable resources such as land, water, and oil. It is up to us and our students to come up with a better way. If we are to do so, we must provide this necessary context, the honest truth of human choices made over many millennia. It speaks not only of where we are today, but also of where we have been and where we are going. More importantly, it speaks to everyone. 

Putting It into Practice

So how does one teach math, science, history, literature, and art in a manner that achieves the goals in our mission statements while providing an overarching context through which they all hang together? One can start by incorporating an anthropological point of view into current projects and curricula, reframing them from a cross-cultural, historical, and holistic point of view: 

1. Teach holistically; link different subjects by teaching through large-team projects and hands-on experience.

Example: A unit on farming could introduce students to everything from the basics of plant biology to the use of astronomy and calendars. A unit on animal husbandry could include discussions about animal biology and sexual reproduction, as well as an introduction to pastoralist ways of life. Units on complex civilizations lead naturally to lessons about government and religion.

2. Focus on basic human needs. Start with the fundamentals — food, shelter, and clothing.

Example: A unit on food could look at what people eat around the world and how they acquire it. School-based gardens can be connected to studies of horticultural practices, plant biology, and ancient farming societies. Studying the plants native to your area can lead to the development of survival skills as well as curiosity about how the indigenous people utilized them. Clothing and shelter both offer opportunities for hands-on learning and historical inquiry. 

3. Establish real working relationships with schools in different districts through large-group projects.

Example: Any large-group project your school can conceive can be turned into a joint effort between sister schools. School plays, construction projects, and historical re-enactments can all benefit from the input of others. If two schools are growing gardens with different crops or flowers, they could meet on a regular basis to barter their produce. Crafts fairs and book fairs can be held to benefit both. 

4. Make cross-cultural connections.

Example: Incorporate acts of global cultural exchange into your curricula; have each grade cohort choose a single locale with which to correspond throughout their years at the school. Think about ways to learn from and assist each other beyond simple charity. 

5. Situate information in historical and cultural context.

Example: Studies of American history and political science should incorporate discussions about ethnic and cultural diversity, discrimination, and social justice at every level. Students of mathematics should learn about the magical properties that numbers have traditionally been thought to hold. A reading of “classics” should be framed by the notion of “literature” as a category of creativity open to only a few, in terms of both authorship and readership. 

The Six-Year Curriculum

An elementary school curriculum designed from an anthropological perspective would flow organically from human experience; social lessons would be seamlessly interwoven with academic ones. Children would start with a question so fundamental as to be completely dismissed in most classrooms: What can we eat? It’s the very first question we humans ever had to ask ourselves, and answering it will take a good deal of their educational careers, creating the curricular through-lines that so many of us are seeking.

Central Questions:

First year: What can I eat? What is safe to eat raw? What has to be cooked? How do we figure that out? How did ancient people figure it out? What did they do with the native plants and animals? 

Second year: What can I grow? What does it take to make things grow? How long will it take? How will the seasons affect my garden? How can I predict that? What might I believe about why it works this way? How would I act on my beliefs? How can we all get along, even if we believe different things? 

Third year: How can I use and get along with animals and my environment? Where do all the plants and animals come from? How can I build proper homes and enclosures for the animals I raise? How can I reach out to other people for help and information? How do people raise animals today? What kinds of cultures raise animals today? 

Fourth year: How can I use math and science to grow more food and feed more people? How can I distribute that food to others? What kinds of tools can I make? What kinds of shelters can I build? How does agriculture work today? What are the lives of farmers around the world like? How do they make decisions and solve problems?

Fifth year: How does farming help the world? How does farming harm the earth? How did ancient civilizations work? How successful were they? How can we avoid their mistakes? How does our civilization work? How might the perfect society work? 

Sixth year: Does everybody have enough to eat? Does everybody live in a safe place? Are we taking good care of the planet? How did technology cause this? How can technology help this? How can we use our assets to make better lives for everyone? How does the media work? How does it shape us, and how can we use it? 

It is my hope that the context I have described herein will inspire schools to move forward in designing new curricula to meet the demands of this changing world — and to better link mission with practice. Today’s students need tools that go beyond enabling them to pass examinations; they need strategies for understanding the culture that examines them. We must prepare them honestly for coping with the complex world they will inherit, and we must start by locating ourselves — historically, culturally, and globally — within it. 

Lauren W. Hasten

Lauren W. Hasten is a professor of anthropology at Las Positas College in Livermore, California, where she also serves as chair of the Student Learning Outcomes Steering Committee.