I’ve spent most of my life so far in the realm of academia and education.
I went to pre-school, grade school, and high school. I went to university for a total of 6 years (undergrad and master’s). Now I work part-time at a privately-owned franchise tutoring center. Recently, I’ve done some reflection on my own personal education history, as someone who was part of an intensive program for “gifted kids.” I’m considering writing a book on the topic.
Those of you who have also spent a long time in education and/or academia know that it is a culture and society within itself. It has its own jargon, its own power structure, and its own set of unspoken cultural rules. I could write an entire post just on the culture of academia! However, this post focuses on the U.S. educational system in the context of the broader U.S. society. These are my thoughts, based on my background as an anthropologist, on the state of the U.S. education system, the values that shape it, and the systems that drive it. Anthropology has given me a great lens through which to examine these concepts.
Obviously, this post is not a heavily tested research study or even a literature review, it is an informal anthropological analysis. My point in writing this post is to discuss the ways in which schools and education are interconnected with broader cultural and social systems.
Here are some of the ways I think anthropological theory and concepts can be applied to American education:
Education as Capital
One’s education is an important part of one’s cultural capital.
To put it simply, U.S. society sees people with a high-level of education from a well-known or competitive institution as better, smarter, and superior. This is often regardless of a person’s other accomplishments or demonstrated abilities.
In addition, the economic, social, and cultural capital that one brings to their education environment can influence their level of academic success. As we know, people with more money often have access to better schools and universities, either through legal or more…nefarious means. I’ll talk a bit more about that in the next section of this post.
Our society’s vision of education as capital also plays a role in how we sort students throughout their school experience. Students are sorted into classes and programs based on test scores, grades, and overall performance. We rank and place students through means such as special education, ESL, gifted and talented programs, AP classes, remedial classes, grades (as in 1st, 2nd, 3rd etc.) and more.
Commodification of Education (Political Economy)
Overtime I feel that education has become more commodified. The evidence is everywhere, from the rising cost of university to the rise in popularity of on and offline tutoring and teaching companies.
Fortunately, free and low-cost sources of knowledge continue to thrive, thanks to the internet and libraries. What is most telling about this process of commodification is the attitude that many Americans seem to have towards education. Based on my personal experience and reading, the link between education, achievement, and monetary cost is a close one for many Americans, especially parents of students. I’ve seen this demonstrated at my workplace.
Although I enjoy interacting with and helping the kids I work with at the tutoring center, one source of stress in my job is some parents’ attitudes toward education. To put it in economic terms, some parents believe that their return (in the form of their child’s grades or test results) should be precisely equal to their monetary investment, regardless of their child’s specific circumstances or level of effort. To put it more simply, some parents seem to believe that putting more money towards their child’s education is all it takes to improve their child’s academic achievement. I believe that many of these perceptions of education are rooted in U.S. American ideas of capitalism and individualism.
To learn more about political economy as a part of anthropology and how it relates to commodification, check out this post by me.
To be clear, I’m not saying that all these cultural ideas about education are 100% problematic, and I’m not implying that there is an easy solution to the issues that these concepts do present. The reality, as it often is in anthropology, is not so black and white. These are just some of my observations and theories.
What do you think about the state of the U.S. education system? Leave a comment!