By Kim Fortun (University of California, Irvine)

What are we after with undergraduate anthropology education, and how do we get there?

What are the discursive contexts of anthropology education today, and where are our students within them?

How can anthropological understanding of contemporary contexts be looped into our educational programs, helping us reach and listen to our students, and creatively imagine where we want to move them?

What moves our students, and how can we stage this?

These are questions addressed by the accounts assembled here, describing undergraduate anthropology programs and projects at Princeton, Duke, the University of Virginia, and the University of Pennsylvania. The initiatives and challenges described are inspiring, suggesting what could be gained from further accounting, deliberation, and experimentation along these lines. Undergraduate anthropology education is at a critical juncture today, which needs to be addressed with the full power of anthropological insight, creativity, and tactics—leavened by insight and examples from other arenas of critical practice.

Carolyn Rouse, writing from her truly extraordinary experience building a high school in Ghana as a method for testing both anthropological theory and her students, points us to the writings of Hannah Arendt and writings on pragmatism and design. I’ll point to ways we can leverage Gregory Bateson’s understanding of double bind, as well as the thinking of varied other figures that I read as radical educators—Paulo Freire and Gayatri Spivak, Miles Horton and Shoshana Felman, among others—looking forward to more opportunity to weave our different experiences and fields of reference together, and into our pedagogical designs and practice.

In the fraught language of both educational reform and development, this is a call to build capacity—for next-generation undergraduate anthropology education. As I’ll describe below, questions about what we call what we do are at the heart of the matter.

Consider the different accounts we have here and the questions they raise: about students who opt for global studies (UVA) or international comparative studies (Duke) instead of anthropology because the first two seem to them more relevant to future careers; about students (at Penn) who learn to critique structural adjustment, NGOs, and “global health” itself on their way to careers with health-care consulting firms or alongside “angel investors” eyeing Africa as a potentially lucrative health-care market; about students who learn anthropology by helping deliver education in Ghana, constrained by limited resources, Ghanaian law and policy, local expectations, and so on, thus learning, as Carolyn Rouse puts it, that “they are not as in control as they think,” and that “applied anthropology” is an oxymoron with high promise; about how students can be moved by experiences as fieldworkers and as published authors of anthropological knowledge (as recounted by Princeton PhD student Alexandra Middleton, describing her experience as an undergraduate at Duke, mentored by Charles Piot).

“The secret, according to Handler,” writes Charles Piot, “is teaching anthropology under another name,” casting anthropological critique in ways that can be carried into the worlds of finance, pharmaceuticals, and corporate media, recognizing that “anthropology” simply “isn’t legible to current students, particularly as a major.”

Carolyn Rouse points to articulation problems of a different sort, noting how the increasing abstraction of anthropological theory in the late twentieth and into the twenty-first century has, ironically, left the discursive field wide open to more straight-talking social scientists—and their theories of “Freakonomics,” “Thinking Fast and Slow,” and so on.

These articulation problems are far from straightforward to fix. Recognizing this, we need to move forward aware of the paradox and necessity of naming anthropological knowledge and casting it in public terms. Ironically, anthropological theory can help with this.

In these stories of anthropological teaching, I hear a cascade of double binds that I think we need to collectively recognize and inhabit. First, we want and need to reach students to whom we don’t make sense—because they already embody instrumentalist ends to education, often with no patience for (and sometimes shrill hostility toward) more discursive (wandering) ways of thinking and becoming. Second, anthropological education is often powerfully advanced through practice, becoming very embodied knowledge, yet it also needs to be rendered explicit: we want our students to have tacit, everyday habits of the anthropological mind and also want them to be advocates for anthropological knowledge. For the latter, they need explicit expressions of what anthropology is and why it is valuable. We are thus asking them to talk instrumentally while acting hermeneutically: another double bind. Third, many of the critiques that anthropology has articulated and made its signature are now widely voiced in the arenas we study (and critique). As Ramah McKay describes, for example, private, profit-driven actors in the global health mix in Africa today are often fully conversant with (anthropological) critiques of NGOs, the state, and projects that are inattentive to local contexts and stakeholder perspectives. These actors say what anthropology has said should be said and leverage it for economic gain. Another double bind: critique has become hegemony and business strategy.

As with all double binds, these can be paralyzing or become pathological; we could start talking anthropology so straight it loses its critical and creative potential, for example, becoming so sure of ourselves we lose the humility on which ethnographic sensibility so depends. But as Bateson taught us (and we are still figuring out how to practice), double binds can also produce deep creativity and transformation; in anthropological teaching, it can be where we learn to teach in historically, ethnographically attuned ways—in the worlds we study. Anthropological teaching can thus be a place where ethnography loops, gaining audiences and relevance by interlacing into pedagogical practice. Teaching becomes one more place were we “publish” anthropological knowledge, with as much attention to content, form, and subject effects as in our more usual texts.

Like other anthropological projects, teaching, too, can be informed by the anthropological record. Vinh-Kim Nguyen’s account of the ways people learned to tell stories about being HIV positive to secure access to life-saving antiretroviral treatments in West Africa in the late 1990s, for example, can shape and sober our efforts to help students speak both within and to power.[1] Elizabeth Povinelli’s description of the “cunning of recognition” can help us recognize the double bind at the heart of all efforts to extend inclusiveness—reminding us that even as we teach about the problems with category schemes, we also need to listen closely to our students, letting them upset us and our own categories and ideals—at the same time that we guard and work against the instrumentalism and supremacism that inhabits some of them.

Different traditions of radical pedagogy can also inspire and guide us. Gayatri Spivak’s pedagogical articulations are extensive, for example—and “double bind” is a recurrent theme, especially in An Aesthetic Education in an Era of Globalization (2012). Thinking in terms of double binds, she explains, one can see how different subject positions can both oppose and construct each other. She argues that we must learn to live with “contradictory instructions.” The problem and necessity of naming anthropological subjects is another case in point.[2]

Shoshana Felman’s essay on “Psychoanalysis and Education” is also a powerful guide, putting paradox at the heart of pedagogy. The critical teaching of Socrates, Freud, and, in turn, Lacan, she explains, is the radical impossibility of teaching—the way teaching undermines itself if delivered. Instead, like the analyst, a teacher can transpose psychoanalytic dialogue—understood as a new “structure of insight”—into educational encounters, staging (often without naming) recollections and reorderings.[3] Felman is paradoxically clear: pedagogical action “may very well, at times, belie the stated meaning, the didactic thesis, the theoretical assertion.”

Naming is a difficulty.

And then there is Miles Horton, who in the 1930s founded the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee to build a southern labor movement, working from the ground up in rural communities. Horton’s work extended from friendships and thinking with Reinhold Niebuhr (at Union Theological Seminary in New York City), John Dewey, Robert Parks (Chicago sociologist who taught Horton about group problem solving), and Jane Addams (at Hull House, where university women came together with recent immigrants for entertainment, classes, and radical organizing). Horton also visited radical schools in Denmark to learn from their example. In the 1940s, Horton helped labor leaders organize themselves in democratic terms (though Horton resisted definitively defining “democracy,” arguing that it is always out ahead of us).[4] Beginning in 1961, Horton helped train the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)—the first voter-registration training sessions were at Highlander[5]—and helped create the Freedom Schools movement. I learned about the Highlander school in the early 1990s through their work in Appalachian communities living with toxic-chemical contamination. It soon became apparent to me how organizing through Highlander made a difference. Communities came to respect their own knowledge of the problems they faced, as well as the need to partner with other kinds of experts. They also knew the power and potential of collectivity and deliberation.

I think anthropology educators can learn from all these threads of thinking about and practicing pedagogy, and that the Highlander approach and emphasis on collective problem solving is especially apt.[6] The lively discussion following the presentations organized by Middleton and Piot for AAA 2017 was suggestive of what more we could do. A book published in 1990 based on intensive dialogue over six days between Miles Horton and Paulo Freire can be both a model for and subject of another meeting of anthropology educators. Titled We Make the Road By Walking: Conversations on Education and Social Change, the book traverses many examples and ideas, discussing the importance of “reknowing” and the “virtues” of educators. We can follow in its stead, looking together out ahead of us, figuring out the contradictory demands of anthropology education today.


Felman, Shoshan. 1982. “Psychoanalysis and Education: Teaching Terminable and Interminable.” Yale French Studies 63:21–44.

Glen, John. 1988. “The CIO Years 1942-1947.” In Highlander: No Ordinary School 1932-1962. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky.

Horton, Myles, and Paulo Freire. 1990. We Make the Road by Walking: Conversations on Education and Social Change. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.

Spivak, Gayatri. 1993. Outside in the Teaching Machine. New York: Psychology Press.

Spivak, Gayatri. 2012. An Aesthetic Education in an Era of Globalization. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


[1] On the phrase and idea of “speaking truth to power,” see

[2] See also “Occupy Education: An Interview with Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak” and Outside in the Teaching Machine (1993).

[3] Felman (1982): “Like the analyst, the teacher, in Lacan’s eyes, cannot in turn be, alone, a master of the knowledge which he teaches. Lacan transposes the radicality of analytic dialogue—as a newly understood structure of insight—into the pedagogical situation. This is not simply to say that he encourages ‘exchange ‘and calls for students’ interventions—as many other teachers do. Much more profoundly, and radically, he attempts to learn the students his own knowledge.”

[4] See Glen (1988).

[5] See:

[6] See “An Exploration of Myles Horton’s Democratic Praxis: Highlander Folk School” by Barbara J. Thayer.