Cultural Anthropology in High School

Today I had yet another idea I had for a classroom that isn’t my own. It’s a bit of a long-winded post, so just look after the jump if the subject line intrigues you.

My school offers a cultural anthropology elective course for juniors and seniors. (Which is such a neat idea.) I took a few anthro courses in college and loved them. The most startling revelation for me — the self-proclaimed philistine — was that anthropologists didn’t always study The Exotic Other, Those Strange People Out There. They studied subcultures of people, wherever they reside.

One of my advisers in grad school, Sharon Traweek, is an anthropologist who studies high energy particle physicists in the US and Japan. My undergrad thesis adviser, Hugh Gusterson, is an anthropologist who studies nuclear weapon scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories. And one of my favorite books that I read was by an anthroplogist who studies crack dealers in Spanish Harlem. And I’m such a fan of documentaries which explore (sometimes mockingly, which I don’t like) strange sects of people: Spellbound, King of Kong, Word Wars, etc.

Maybe I’m just a cultural voyeur.

Anthropology is perfect for high school. The fundamental ideas are accessible to everyone and doesn’t need to be unnecessarily tangled with jargon and philosophical¬†quandaries. And subcultures are everywhere — students are part of them. Cliques, classrooms, clubs, religious groups, sports teams, their workplaces, families, anything. Students¬†could tease out hierarchies, power dynamics, rituals, value systems, codes, etc., of groups that they are part of.¬†How amazing would it be to have students do an anthropological study of something that is meaningful to them, that they haven’t ever given critical thought to? Who wouldn’t want to read an anthropological analysis of high school football and their rituals? [1]

Anyway, somehow, for not particular reason, today, I remembered Hugh Gusterson wrote a paper about watching the movie Short Circuit with a nuclear weapons scientist, known as “Ray,” and then talking with him about it.

As I watched the film its moral seemed transparently clear: the military just seeks to destroy and cannot be trusted; brilliant scientists are often naive and allow their work to be misused by an unscrupulous military; an enjoyment of love and live is antithetical to military and scientific life; and scientists and military men need to be brought to their senses by strong, activist women with big hearts. In short, the filmed seemed to me a searing indictment of Ray’s life. Only one thing puzzled me: why was Ray enjoying it so much that he almost fell off the sofa laughing at one point?

“You enjoyed that film?” I asked, bemused.

“Wasn’t it great? I’ve seen it before, but I love it,” he answered grinning from ear to ear.

I felt the way Newton must have felt when the apple fell on his head, but before he had any idea why. I was sure I was onto something important here, but I was not sure what. I told Ray my interpretation of the film, emphasizing what I took to be its critique of the military and of weapons scientists. There was a moment of silence as Ray looked first perplexed, then tired. I had taken him by surprise. He told me that the film, as far as he was concerned, may have poked some good-natured fun at the military and at scientists, but its central theme had to do with the fact that machines are enchanted and magical, and that people are unnecessarily afraid of them…

I realized that Ray and I had been watching different movies. Short Circuit revealed in stark relief the disparate cultural worlds that Ray and I inhabited. If ever I had been included to doubt the palpable force of culture in human affairs, here was my evidence of its determinative influence… Separated by our initial attitude to technology, we had understood the film in fundamentally different ways. Ray’s reading of the film was completely invisible to me as a possibility until our conversation. [2]

Great assignments can be plucked from this paper!

Have students choose an appropriate movie (the movie choice is crucial) and watch it with someone from the group they’re studying. Use the discussion that the anthropologist-student and the subject has to illuminate something about that subculture. At the same time, like in the passage above, the student will be forced to position themselves in the narrative, in reference to the subculture they are examining. (It’s part of the old anthropological debate about the role of anthropologists in reference to the peoples they’re studying — observer, participant, or participant-observer.)

Or, alternatively, the class could chose a bunch people from a subculture they are interested in to watch an appropriate movie (again, the movie choice is crucial), and videotape a discussion that is generated after the movie. [3] (The class would have to plan what the best way to set up the discussion would be, as anthropologists: would it be directed, totally free-form, etc.) The teacher posts the video online for students to watch.

Each student would be asked to write their own conclusions about the culture based on this evidence. The teacher then has a whole set of different anthropological analyses from which to lead a class discussion about the culture being studied, about how anthropologists draw conclusions, and about the social science nature of anthropology (is it a science? what makes it so, or not so? is there a methodology?). Is one analysis better than another? Why?

In fact, the tech geek in me cries, the video and the analyses could be posted online, and commented on by other members of the class.

Just an idea. Throwing it out there. Don’t know why.

[1] Sports are actually well-studied in anthropology, I think.

[2] Excerpted from chapter 3 of Hugh Gusterson, People of the Bomb: Portraits of America’s Nuclear Complex (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004)

[3] Ooooh, I’d love to do this with beginner teachers and the movie Chalk, and then again with veteran teachers and Chalk.


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