Providing Context: Using Anthropology to Teach about Multiculturalism, Diversity, and Just about Everything Else

LW Hasten

Professor of Anthropology

Las Positas College

March 2005

This essay is intended to inspire educators to find ways to incorporate anthropology into their curricula. It was the basis for a later essay published Fall 2009 in Independent School Magazine.

Why Teach Anthropology in High Schools?

Independent high schools are trying to do it all.  While preparation standards demand emphasis on core competencies, we craft mission statements that speak of building character and promoting global stewardship.  We aspire to diversity of academic content as well as actual population, yet we often find a disconnect between our curricula and our ideals.  We attend conferences in search of tips for getting them to merge.  How can we connect compassion to mathematics, integrity to English literature, or an appreciation of diversity to the study of ancient civilizations?  The answer lays so deep as to be fairly existential: by reconceiving education as a series of lessons in the human experience, and all scholarship as deriving from it.  What better science is there than anthropology -- the study of humanity -- for helping our students to make connections between their studies and their lives?

All categories of knowledge are interdependent, having evolved together through necessity as well as inspiration.  Despite this, we separate them now into academic disciplines and put up psychological barriers between them which discourage not only cooperation, but innovation.  If we wish to speak to every aspect of our students, we must address the entirety of their lives, a task for which the fragmentary approach we now employ seems ill-suited.  Anthropology, however, offers us the tools for reweaving all our various strands into the whole that we once were, when astronomy and physics met religion and art on high ground and built temples there together.  All-encompassing by definition, anthropology can reconnect these discrete categories of knowledge to reveal the framework upon which all our lives are built.  In so doing, it can provide a context for understanding everything from art to war while fostering a sense of personal integrity and an appreciation of difference.    


Take Students Beyond Tolerance

Anthropology is both comparative and relative, in that it seeks to understand all cultures around the world and throughout time on their own terms and according to their own standards and beliefs.  As it exposes us to cultures other than our own, anthropology does unsettling things -- like pointing out while we may have inherited our knowledge of geometry from the Greeks, the ancient Maya knew a thing or two about it, too.  It forces us to look outside ourselves to see other ways of life and different modes of knowledge.  It demands that we withhold judgment in favor of rendering assistance, that we respect rather than simply tolerate one another, and that we pay due attention to all that makes us human.  It asks us to examine our lives not in the context of recent historic developments, but of the 200,000-year-long human project known as survival. 


Teaching Anthropology is Teaching Multiculturalism

Multiculturalism is not a new idea, nor is it as progressive as one might think.  Looking back through history, it appears that whenever two discrete peoples have in come into long-term contact with one another, the result has generally been either conflict or peaceful coexistence -- what we today refer to as "cultural pluralism" or multiculturalism.  The most important factor in determining which direction the relationship will turn is financial: as the economic power of both groups approaches equality, it grows ever more likely that the two groups will establish a working relationship to the benefit of both.  This helps to explain our current-day penchant for multiculturalism.  We are not, after all, celebrating the diversity of hunter-gatherer lifestyles, but of folks with whom we go to school and work.  In other words, we honor the differences between people just like ourselves because we are interested in doing business with them.  We all have similar goals, dreams and desires, and we all labor within the same system -- so how diverse is that really?

The new multiculturalism should move beyond this comfort zone of capitalist homogeneity to embrace real diversity as it occurs in our world.  That means looking past the school and the community it serves to see the rest of the globe and the span of history.  It means establishing interdependent relationships between different communities, not just across districts but between countries.  Anthropology has staked its claim squarely in this territory, where it has been teaching us about global diversity for over a century.  I believe that by providing us with a more holistic approach to our studies, an anthropological perspective can give us exactly what seek: a curriculum that builds character while teaching skills. 


Give Students an Anthropological Context

High school students are at a crossroads in their lives, when youthful naiveté begins to clash with life experience.  They want answers we have difficulty providing.  Why is there injustice in the world?  Why is there war?  Poverty?  The list is endless and discouraging.  History lays out the situation while psychology explains the motivation, still our answers feel woefully inadequate.  There is, however, a pre-existing paradigm which actually answers these questions: the anthropological theory of cultural materialism.  I believe it can provide students with a sensible framework for understanding virtually every aspect of their lives.  Teaching through it may well revolutionize our approach to education. 

It was Marvin Harris who, borrowing heavily 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. 


Why People Do What They Do

Harris described five major modes of production which 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 is turn leads to beliefs and practices which 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 she's hungry, she gathers some plants or captures a small animal; if she's cold, she builds a fire, makes some clothes and builds a shelter.  She has no need of government; she owns nothing, yet has a right to everything.  She is 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.  Her culture, therefore, prefers monogamy and places extensive taboos on sex, a two-pronged strategy which helps to keep the population down.  This approach worked very well for almost the entire span of human existence. 


Technology Changes Everything

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.  Agriculturalists 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 there's plenty 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, in fact, that many agricultural societies practice polygamy, since marrying each man to several women ensures a great flow of offspring.  This was a sensible strategy for the early Mormon Church, concerned to quickly populate the ranks of both their faith and their state. 


Here Comes the Government

Perhaps the most significant change that agriculture brings lies in the fact that not everyone has to be a farmer; 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 be a priest, a warrior, a poet, a shoemaker, or even a teacher.  This burst of specialization is both liberating and discomforting, for while it 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.  Now the need for a government arises, and a strong one at that; how else are we to ensure that food gets from the growers to the rest of us?  How else are we to ensure that our property remains our own?  Inequalities become inevitable as some succeed while others fail and some grow wealthy while others grow thin.  A ruling bureaucracy arises which becomes so essential to the survival of its populace that it often finds justification in a state religion. 


Where Are We Now?

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 tended by the enslaved people of North America : 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.  Children are expensive in the industrialist mode of production; they don't work and they cost a lot of money.  This is one reason for the distaste with which the Irish Catholic immigrants of the late 19th century were met in America ; they had no skills, they were illiterate, and to American minds, they had no business having so many children.  An equally large problem is posed by the fact that as foragers, we humans managed to coexist peacefully with our planet for almost 200 millennia, while as farmers and industrialists, we're utterly destroying it.  These modes of production are not sustainable in the long term, largely due to their dependence upon the use of non-renewable resources such as land, water and oil.  We tear through all of them at a fearful rate, and where do we go when we run out of them?  Knocking on neighbors' doors, usually with our tanks in tow. 

This is the context we should provide, the honest truth of human choices made over many millennia.  It speaks not only of where we are today, but of where we have been and where we are going.  More importantly, it speaks not only of us, but of everyone and everything we are and ever have been. 


Changes in Curricular Philosophy

Teaching through this paradigm encourages the study of many diverse lifeways around the globe and throughout time.  This leads students to a worldview that encompasses much more than their own personal experiences; they end up having real respect for people from whom they differ.  They realize that prejudice is a roadblock to learning about anything other than themselves, and just how limiting that is.  They discover a genuine curiosity about the lives of others and come quickly to see the beauty in us all.  They internalize the principle of cultural relativism, which holds that all cultures are equally moral and right, relative to themselves.  Through anthropology, students can come to a genuine appreciation of difference and diversity and a true understanding of their place in the world.   

How then are we to incorporate this point of view into our curricula? 

1.  Teach anthropology classes.  As the study of humanity, anthropology is a discipline too big for one office.  It's traditionally divided into four fields in which all anthropologists generally take courses: cultural or social anthropology, physical or biological anthropology, archaeology, and linguistics.  If you hire an anthropologist, you're usually getting someone who can teach everything from comparative religion to sex education and genetics.  Besides being a bargain, anthropologists are diversity specialists whose grasp of the issues has been honed by the extraordinarily wide scope of their studies.

2.  Move beyond the emphasis on the so-called "classic" civilizations.  The ancient Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians all had societies strikingly like our own in that they were all agriculture-based hierarchical militarized states.  The new multicultural curriculum should offer courses on the pastoralist Masai, the horticultural Yanomami, or the hunter-gatherers of the Kalahari desert .  It should address the Hmong who have relocated to our cities as well as the Aymara-speaking undocumented migrant laborers without whom produce prices would soar.  It should teach our students about the child immigrants who miss days from school to translate for their parents or help them in the fields.  This is the current truth of global diversity, of which we are only a part. 

3.  Construct mini-courses around hands-on projects which build bridges between disciplines.  Recreate history by building scale-model pyramids, for example, which offer an opportunity to teach everything from art and history to geometry, architecture and astronomy.  Seed the school grounds with native plants while studying the uses to which the Native Americans put them.  Have students from a social studies class interview their counterparts from an ESL class about their experiences in America; invite them to together make a film or website that tells the story. 

4.  Create and maintain genuine working relationships with students and schools unlike your own.  Choose a sister school with completely different demographics and go out of your way to put the students in the same room together on a consistent basis.  Teach them to communicate effectively and respect one another through group projects that require their joint participation.  Co-direct the same exact play in two different schools and schedule rehearsals and performances that integrate the two casts, or collaborate on an original show.  Have the students in two schools pair off to teach each other about their respective communities; ask them to work together to think of a creative solution to a problem in either one. 

5.  Maintain historical perspective.  Teach your students about the social circumstances under which the texts they read were written; ask them who gets read and why.  When you teach them the facts of science, remind yourself that facts can change; everything you teach them may one day be proven incorrect.  After all, it used to be a verifiable fact that the world was flat and the sun revolved around the earth. 

6.  Maintain cultural perspective.  Teach your students that there are still people in the world who do not have televisions or video games, and that they are none the worse for it.  Question the concept of "progress."  There is no such thing as homelessness among foragers; it is possible only in industrial societies like our own.  Maintain vigilance around cultural constructions of race and gender; some people are "black" in America and "white" in Brazil . 

It is my hope that the context I have presented here will inspire you to move forward in introducing anthropology into your curriculum.  Both we and our students are seeking answers that anthropology can provide.  Using anthropological approaches, we can introduce holism to academics and provide an overarching context for everything we teach.  By locating ourselves historically, culturally, and globally, we can prepare our students honestly for coping with the complex world they will inherit.