Critical Philosophy and Anthropology of Education Syllabus

For our continuing collection of syllabi, here is the syllabus for an undergraduate seminar that I taught in 2016 during my postdoc at Whittier College (a small liberal arts college in Southern California). Its mission was to put critical ethnography of higher education into dialogue with critical philosophies of education (from Plato to Freire, essentially).

Let me begin here with the reading list and course description, and then I will add some retrospective teaching comments at the end.

Critical Philosophy and Ethnography of Education
Fall 2016
Tuesday/Thursday, 1:30-2:50
Eli Thorkelson

Course Description

What is the meaning of being educated? How can educational institutions be so contradictory, combining systems of discipline with ideals of freedom and emancipation? How does education change in the face of globalization and digital technology? In this class, we will take an anthropological look at how education works in a range of global cultures and institutions. One part of the course will look critically at educational values and ideals, ranging from the French Enlightenment to the postcolonial era. A second part will be interactional, studying in fine detail at how ethnographers analyze power and language within the classroom. And a third part will be institutional, considering the rise of “neoliberalism” since the 1980s, the changing structure of social reproduction and the labor market. Students will also practice doing some of their own ethnographic fieldwork, centered on an educational setting of their own choosing, and will be asked to write about their own educational experiences.

Reading List

Week 1: Introduction

September 8: Overview of the course

In-class writing assignment

Week 2: Philosophies of Education

September 13: “Traditional” Western Pedagogy
Plato, Republic, Book 2,

Jacques Verger, “Scholastic Pedagogy,” “Knowledge and Authority: The Teacher’s Image” and “The Place of Teachers in Medieval Society”

September 15: The Birth of Education

Jonathan Swift, The Battle of the Books,

Eli Meyerhoff, “Against Education”

Week 3: Enlightenment Pedagogy (I)

September 20: Rousseau, Emile, Book 1

September 22: Rousseau, Emile, Book 2

Week 4: Enlightenment Pedagogy (II)

September 27: Rousseau, Emile, Book 3

September 29: Rousseau, Emile, Book 5

Week 5: Feminist & Progressive Education

October 4: A Retort to Rousseau
Mary Wollstonecraft, Vindication of the Rights of Women, Chs. 1-2

October 6: U.S. progressivism
John Dewey, “The Democratic Conception in Education” (in Democracy and Education)

Week 6: Postcolonial and Liberation Pedagogy

October 11: National Independence
• Donald Freeman, Rollie Kimbrough and Brother Zolili, “The Meaning of Education”
• Julius K. Nyerere, “Education for Self-Reliance”

Assignment: First paper due by midnight

October 13: Freire
Paolo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Ch. 1-2.

Week 7: The Classroom

October 18: Social Order
• Deborah Golden, “Structured Looseness: Everyday Social Order at an Israeli Kindergarten”
• Judith Kapferer, “Socialization and the Symbolic Order of the School”

October 20: Participatory Pedagogy
Johan Elvemo, Davydd Greenwood et al, “Participation, action, and research in the classroom”

Week 8: Social Reproduction On Campus (I)

October 25:
Armstrong and Hamilton, Paying for the Party, Ch. 1 (“The Women”)

October 27:
Armstrong and Hamilton, Paying for the Party, Ch. 5 (“Socialites, Wannabes and Fit with the Party Pathway”)

Week 9: Social Reproduction On Campus (II)

November 1:
Armstrong and Hamilton, Paying for the Party, Ch. 6 (“Strivers, Creaming, and the Blocked Mobility Pathway”)

November 3:
Armstrong and Hamilton, Paying for the Party, Ch. 7 (“Achievers, Underachievers, and the Professional Pathway”)

Week 10: Informal Education

November 8:
Loic Wacquant, “The social logic of sparring,” pp. 77-100, from Body and Soul: Notebooks of an Apprentice Boxer

November 10:
Loic Wacquant. “An implicit and collective pedagogy,” pp. 100-127, from Body and Soul: Notebooks of an Apprentice Boxer

Assignment: Second paper due by midnight

Week 11: Gender and Power

November 15:
C.J. Pascoe, “Becoming Mr. Cougar: Institutionalizing Heterosexuality and Masculinity at River High,” from Dude, You’re a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School.

November 17: NO CLASS (AAA Meetings)

Week 12: Gender and Power

November 22
C.J. Pascoe, “Look at My Masculinity! Girls Who Act Like Boys” from Dude, You’re a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School.

November 24: NO CLASS (Thanksgiving!)

Week 13: Public Higher Education (I)

November 29:
Newfield, Unmaking the Public University, Ch. 1

December 1:
Newfield, Unmaking the Public University, Ch. 3

Week 14: Public Higher Education (II)

December 6:
Newfield, Unmaking the Public University, Ch. 5

December 8: Conclusion


With a few years of hindsight, if I were designing this class again today, there is  quite a bit that I would change. Here are a few notes on that.

The long books turned out to be tough going with the group of students I had. They were not really accustomed to reading long books in anthropology classes. I had decided beforehand that I really wanted us to read Rousseau’s Emile in this class, and in hindsight, I still think its image of non-didactic pedagogy, and its extreme sexism, are worth learning about and historically important. But it turned out to be a very hard and long book for my students, and I regretted giving it so much space on the syllabus. And Jonathan Swift’s 17th century prose, however much it illuminated an earlier moment’s politics of knowledge, proved to be an even harder challenge.

I found in practice that Christopher Newfield’s Unmaking The Public University was hard to work through, again largely because it is long and intricate, and I didn’t discover how to excerpt it effectively. It covers an important topic that my Californian students cared about — the U.S. politics of race, affirmative action, and public education — but I would probably look for a more concise introduction to the topic.

I would likely also rearrange the syllabus now to give feminist theories of education much more attention. The philosophical “canon” of educational theory is structurally quite male, and I would like to challenge that more effectively, beyond just reading Wollstonecraft’s reaction to Rousseau, and then coming back later to gender issues with Armstrong and Hamilton’s and Pascoe’s excellent ethnographic books.

All these caveats aside, I do still really like the idea of reading philosophy of education alongside ethnography of education. Students (not to mention many teachers) don’t usually know much about the history of educational ideas, and they are very interesting to juxtapose with ethnographic work.

Full syllabus

I’ll also post the full syllabus (with assignments, policies, etc) as a PDF. Here it is, along with some closing reflections from the last day of class.

Anthropology of Education Syllabus + Coda (PDF)

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Eli Thorkelson

Eli Thorkelson edits Academography and also keeps a research blog at decasia.

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