By Richard Handler and Anne Nelson Stoner (University of Virginia)

What is the effectiveness of anthropological critique in our classrooms? In our anthropologically oriented global development studies program at the University of Virginia, we attract politically centrist or mildly left-leaning students, mostly from privileged backgrounds, who want to “do service,” often by finding “innovative solutions” to the world’s ills. Our curriculum develops a critique of student service and of the idea of apolitical solutions to social problems that stem from the global structure of wealth and power. It is not difficult for most of our students to understand such a critique, and many are persuaded by it, intellectually. It is much more difficult, however, for students on the verge of leaving school to imagine themselves working outside the university in spaces of political action and resistance. It is difficult for them, ultimately, to move beyond the kind of understanding that bespeaks an elite education to a politics of struggle that is alien to the habitus of privilege that has shaped most of them (and most of us teachers) as subjects.

This paper grows out of a moment of what anthropologists at the turn of the twentieth century called “independent invention.” On the morning of February 14, 2017, Richard Handler had written his abstract for our session. It asked: What effect does anthropological critique, articulated by privileged professors at prestigious universities, have on undergraduate students who come from elite backgrounds and whose “habitus” makes it unlikely they’ll turn intellectual understanding into political activism?

That afternoon, Richard met with third-year student Anne Nelson Stoner, who had taken a course with him the prior year on Culture, Gender, and Violence, which he had designed to focus on the issue of sexual violence (rape) on university campuses. Anne Nelson was also a global development studies (GDS) major, a program in which Handler teaches. She was troubled, she said, by the hypocrisy she was experiencing in her GDS and anthropology classes, in which she was being taught to critique the neoliberal social order but not to “feel” the critique in such a way that she’d be inclined to turn understanding into action.

Anne Nelson’s discussion of the wall between her and her student colleagues’ growing intellectual understanding, on the one hand, and their feelings about their identities, their personhood, their daily activities, and their plans for the future, on the other hand, corresponded to Richard’s feeling in the classroom of pushing helplessly against the habitus of his students, even while they showed in their work that they understood and appreciated the arguments he was making.

We began an extended discussion over email and in person as a way to write this paper. As the reader will recognize, our voices in this conversation differ, stemming from differences in age, gender, and experience. But we emphasize that it was a conversation: we listened to each other. Several interrelated dichotomies emerged in our discussion, which we will use to explicate the similar frustrations we articulated, from our differing social locations as teacher and student: the rational and the emotional, the professional and the personal, the experience-distant and the experience-near, and the world of work and world of fun.

Anne Nelson was initially inclined to suspect that a purely rational pedagogy of critique that failed to engage students at an emotional level was incapable of stimulating students to become politically active beyond the classroom. “We are taught that we are ensnared in these systems we criticize,” she wrote, “but I’m not sure how much we actually know it, in fact I don’t think we really know it at all, or else we would feel it. Sometimes I sit in class and think, if we were all truly absorbing and personalizing what the teacher is telling us, where are the moments of deep personal conflict for us?”

Richard was initially suspicious of the explanatory power of the rational-emotional dichotomy, asking why we should assume that affect is more important than intellect in motivating either teachers or students to take political action. At the same time, he thought that Anne Nelson’s account of students who comprehend but do not feel the arguments he makes in the classroom corresponded to his own sense of pushing against a student habitus he was incapable of changing.

As Richard and Anne Nelson discussed experiences they’d shared in the classroom, it became clear that Anne Nelson’s use of the term “feeling” implicated a second dichotomy, between the professional and the personal, which manifested in what Clifford Geertz once called experience-distant and experience-near narratives. Classroom discourses, in Anne Nelson’s discussion, belonged to the world of the professional self, or, for students, of the self that was socially expected in the classroom. The personal was the world to which students “retreated” after class. As an example, she described interactions with friends who participate in debutante balls and sororities: “I think about conversations that I have with friends, and I can clearly see the divide between when we are talking about theory/knowledge and when we are talking about ourselves. In theory, we can be very critical, grapple with ideas and come to an agreement that some aspect of the system needs to be changed. But if the conversation switches and she starts talking about her debutante ball or her sorority, it is then no longer about the system or the knowledge, it’s about me and her and being a ‘good, fun, carefree, supportive friend.’ If I then criticize either debutante balls or sororities, it is incredibly personal, confrontational, and uncomfortable.”

Here, Anne Nelson seemed to be describing two distinct ways that she and her colleagues narrate social experiences. When they are using the language of critical theory, they are talking about a distant world, and although they know, in some sense, that they belong to that world, the narrative voice they are using is that of the detached observer. But “talking about ourselves,” about “me and her,” requires or enacts a different linguistic register, one in which the pronouns (“I,” “you,” “me,” etc.) refer to the very students who are engaged in discussion. The human beings to whom the language refers are the people who are doing the referring. Thus, as Anne Nelson noted, in such conversations, she has to take her place in the discourse, and if it isn’t a place of connection (“us”), things can become oppositional quickly.

Anne Nelson gave another example of the distinction between the professional and the personal, an example that we might describe in terms of a closely related dichotomy: work versus leisure. Describing the party culture at our university, she could see that the apparently private and personal world of “fun” was every bit as socially structured as the world of the classroom:

There is an expectation among college students to be smart and critical and thoughtful during the day (and this is widely respected), but when Friday evening comes around there is an equally, if not stronger, expectation to leave it all behind and be “carefree.” If you are not then you are no fun, or stuck up, or lame. I’ve seen this time and again of friends who are intellectually engaged and I can have wonderful conversations with them during the day about aspects of our culture, but then I watch them disengage from those thoughts for the night and go and be “carefree,” literally acting out the system that we had just talked about, because it is necessary for being liked and so deeply ingrained in us. I feel this tension in myself all the time.

As our conversation continued, we came to the uncomfortable realization that just like the role of the fun-loving partier, the public stance of critical questioning that teachers model in GDS and anthropology classes was itself a role that could be taken on and discarded as the social situation required. Richard drew on Jules Henry’s critique of mid-twentieth-century US classrooms to illustrate the idea that schools teach students to think in standardized ways:

The first lesson a child has to learn when he comes to school is that lessons are not what they seem. He must then forget this and act as if they were. This is the first step toward “school mental health”; it is also the first step in becoming absurd. . . . The second lesson is to put the teachers’ and students’ criteria in place of his own. He must learn that the proper way to sing is tunelessly and not the way he hears the music; that the proper way to paint is the way the teacher says, not the way he sees it; that the proper attitude is not pleasure but competitive horror at the success of his classmates, and so on. . . . The early schooling process is not successful unless it has accomplished in the child an acquiescence in its criteria, unless the child wants to think the way school has taught him to think. (Henry 1963, 291)

Anne Nelson responded to this passage with the following remark: “We, as students, are taught the pedagogy of critical thinking in the same way we are taught to sing ‘in tune,’ to paint the ‘correct way,’ to behave in ‘appropriate’ ways. . . . Isn’t critical thinking playing the same game?” That question presented a challenge to Richard’s assumptions about his pedagogy, one he had confronted before. Teachers in many liberal arts disciplines, but especially in anthropology, like to think they are teaching their students to be “critical.” Indeed, the word is a cliché that appears in most professors’ and graduate students’ statements about their approach to teaching. Worse, “critical thinking” has become a cliché in liberal arts fundraising discourses, in which it is pitched as a “skill” that students learn (and pay for) in college and that they can deploy on the job market.

Yet, if critical thinking has become a skill that corporate employers will buy, we have to ask what its substance is. Critical thinking on a corporate work team might mean figuring out how to solve problems that one’s superiors have assigned, but it cannot mean questioning the ultimate goals of the organization or its place in the wider sociopolitical system—meanings that it might have, or might once have had, inside the academy. As Bonnie Urciuoli once remarked, “Actual critical and precise thinking and writing can get people fired pretty damn fast, and is therefore unlikely to count as a skill” (2003, 407).

But for the moment, let’s grant that at least in left-leaning disciplines like anthropology, teachers who teach critical thinking are not primarily teaching a skill, but an orientation to reality that is grounded in certain political, epistemological, and methodological principles that we teachers try both to clarify and to make available for questioning. Even granting that much, our original question remains: What effects does such a pedagogy have on students who, as we have shown, have fairly powerful ways to separate professional and personal performances and attitudes? And how can teachers, who probably make similar separations in their own lives between the professional and the personal, bring their critical pedagogy to life?

One way we have tried to do this in our GDS program is by balancing theoretical teachings with a “practice” course we call Development on the Ground. The course is currently taught by David Edmunds, a geographer with extensive experience working in development. When David joined our program in 2013, he realized we were trying to chart a middle way between an undergraduate major that limited itself to critical, liberal arts analysis, and a professionally oriented program that scanted analysis to focus on skills. Teaching various skills—fieldwork, data analysis, community engagement, even grant writing—has its place in our program, but David insists we teach students “to treat the deployment of these skills as the political acts they are, rather than as exercises that produce . . . apolitical outcomes” (Handler et al. 2016, 266).

Our goal, in short, is to produce “critical development professionals” who know “that social change takes time and that it requires transforming subjectivities, building capacities and solidarities and growing new organizations and institutions.” We will teach our students, he continues, “that they can clear space for such constructive work by disrupting existing hierarchies . . . even from within privileged social locations—the large contractor or investment firm, a federal agency or large NGO—as well as working with politically astute grassroots movements” (Handler et al. 2016, 266).

Having been exposed to David’s pedagogy, Anne Nelson recognized its validity, but she still wondered whether, after all, working in this way in development nonetheless required no change in a person’s fundamental political positioning. David, she wrote, is “optimistic in the sense that he thinks ultimately we learn to see ourselves within these structures of power. I, personally, don’t think that we do. If we could really see ourselves in that context, wouldn’t it spark more radical action/decisions?” Such a question maps perfectly onto a growing critique of development work as an industry that provides good middle-class jobs to an internationally mobile elite who work among, but rarely ever alongside or with, for sustained periods of time, the “target populations” (Cooke 1988).

These questions, and our attempts to answer them, brought us to an impasse. Happily, a liberal arts education leads students in many directions. One direction was suggested to Anne Nelson in a class on Sufi literature, where she had been asked to consider the relationship between what Western scholars call “ritual” and the formation of ethical selves: “We were reading about a female Sufi’s (and a larger Islamic) view on the importance and power of ritual and practice to create yourself; you pray five times a day whether or not you ‘feel’ it or know the significance of it because you are training yourself to see the world in a certain way.” From a Western perspective, grounded in the mind-body dichotomy, this makes no sense since there is no connection (we think) between the ways of the body and the rational workings of the mind. Ritual is, as we say (from the position we assign ourselves atop the hierarchy of human civilizations), mechanical, mindless.

Thus it is not surprising that our GDS program can ask students to think about actions in terms of careers but almost never tries to connect the training in critical analysis it offers to the micro-behaviors of daily life. As Anne Nelson put it, in religious traditions like Sufism, “people train themselves to become pious individuals living a life in accordance with God. It is these small actions that I see as nonexistent in GDS. How do we become political in everyday life? How do we constantly negotiate our positionality and change our actions accordingly? How do we wear clothes representative of systems we support? How do we eat in accordance with them? How do we talk in accordance with them?” And can we draw on traditions like Sufism to learn how to bring our daily actions into alignment with our political commitments?

Another direction came from our colleague, anthropologist Arsalan Khan, who, upon reading our paper, pointed out that our sense of being stuck, being unable to act on the ideas we were teaching and learning, might derive from the rather obvious facts of our social positionality: our class and race privilege. As he put it in an email message:

I think many minority students and students of working-class backgrounds do leave the classroom and create “fun” around community building and activism. This is because many minorities, I think, already have something of a “critical habitus” and are looking for the discursive tools to frame it and turn it into a resource. We can see how movements like Black Lives Matter draw directly on critical scholarship. In other words, there are students who are listening to our words differently. (AK/RH May 24, 2017)

Khan’s comment suggests that teachers should adjust their pedagogy to their students’ needs; some students may lack the kinds of critical perspectives we want to impart, while others may have an even more powerful critical sensibility than privileged professors possess, yet they lack the “discursive tools to frame it,” at least in academic contexts. And just as students differ in their critical experiences and sensibilities, so, too, do professors. For example, Carolyn Rouse’s paper in this collection shows that African American anthropologists, keenly aware of how social theory can be constructed to legitimize nefarious social policies, are perhaps more inclined than many of their colleagues to look for ways to “apply” theory in socially beneficial ways. And yet, as she points out, the contributions of these anthropologists are often “illegible” in the wider field—which means that we did not seek help where it was available!

Following up on Rouse’s paper, we can see that the critical tools we offer our students, when presented as “pure theory,” will never answer the questions that Anne Nelson and many of our students have. Nor, in fact, will most forms of “experiential” education that universities are offering with ever-greater enthusiasm. Most experiential education, in the form of internships, study abroad, service work, and research projects, is designed to prepare people for elite careers. It is most decidedly not about teaching them to live off the land or to struggle on the barricades.

And yet, as suggested by the work of our colleague David Edmunds teaching students to look for the spaces where they can “disrupt existing hierarchies,” Carolyn Rouse in a Ghanaian high school, and several of the other authors in this collection, models are emerging that can help us do more, and do better.

Acknowledgments. Thanks to Bonnie Urciuoli for helping us formulate this distinction between talking about others and taking one’s place within the discourse; see Benveniste (1971, 217–30). And thanks to Arsalan Khan for clarifying the difference between Western educational models that rely on a mind-body distinction and Islamic traditions that do not; see Khan (2016).


Benveniste, Emile. 1971. Problems in General Linguistics. Translated by Mary Elizabeth Meek. Coral Gables, FL: University of Miami Press.

Cooke, Bill. 2004. “Rules of Thumb for Participatory Change Agents.” In Participation: From Tyranny to Transformation?, edited by Samuel Hickey and Giles Mohan, 42–55. London: Zed.

Handler, Richard, David Edmunds, Daniel Ng, Susan Tewolde, and Marta Woldu. 2016. “Between Engagement and Critique: Development Studies in a Liberal Arts Tradition.” Canadian Journal of Development Studies 37 (3): 261–78.

Henry, Jules.1963. Culture against Man. New York: Random House.

Khan, Arsalan. 2016. “Islam and Pious Sociality: The Ethics of Hierarchy in Tablighi Jamaat in Pakistan.” Social Analysis 60 (4): 96–113.

Urciuoli, Bonnie. 2003. “Excellence, Leadership, Skills, Diversity: Marketing Liberal Arts Education.” Language and Communication 23:385–408.