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Chapter 26: Anthropological Education

DD: Our fieldtrip and all the other assignments that we have suggested during this summer school should have helped you to understand what we mean when we say that social anthropology aims to be holistic. Of course it would be possible to devise a project in any of the villages and towns that we visited last week which concentrated on, just one aspect of those communities. But I think we saw, perhaps most clearly during our interviews at the bazar in Przemysl, how economic decisions can have complex motivations and need to be understood in their cultural context. We need knowledge of economic trends to understand continuing peasant grievances. We need knowledge of the history of ethnic relations in the region to understand why some Lemkos feel aggrieved about the loss of their forest rights.

Or you might choose to explore further the rich symbolism of Polish Catholicism. That symbolism has been modified over time and the Church as an institution is in quite a different situation nowadays from that in which it found itself under communism. A study of its symbols and rituals is bound to reflect these wider social changes, at any rate if it concerns itself with how these are now practised and understood by Polish people. It is possible to imagine an investigation, perhaps one that aimed to find the deeper logic of these symbols, that did not depend on fieldwork at all, since all the data could readily be accessed in books or even from the internet. But that would not be a social anthropological study, as we define the discipline.

ETD: Holism is easier asserted than practised, and even Bronio never managed to write a single synthesising study to spell out all the connections that mattered in the case of the Trobriand Islanders . . .

The deeper problem I have with holistic approaches is that they oblige us to focus on bounded units, for only in this way, by defining a bounded whole, can we proceed to show how all the parts either fit together or become entangled in relations of contradiction or whatever. The holistic approach leads us too easily into the trap of Bronio's strong notion of culture. It wasn't only the Trobrianders who were 'a culture'. He applied the same model of the world to his native Poland and to Central Europe generally. In fact, this is where his concept of culture came from in the first place. But was there in his lifetime a unique Polish culture to which all speakers of Polish belonged and with which they identified? The evidence we gathered in Galicia last week suggested that the distinctiveness is actually rather new, that in the nineteenth century the Polish speaking peasant and the Ukrainian speaking peasant had far more in common culturally than either could ever share with a university intellectual from Cracow. Bronio was careful to distinguish his cultural nationalism from any form of political nationalism, but it seems to me that even cultural nationalism should be highly suspect. It accepts the nationalist's basic assumption, whereas I think this is what anthropology should be challenging . . .

DD: Let me move on to address a question that has come up indirectly at many points over the last few weeks. Is anthropology of any use to the world? Can anthropological knowledge be applied? This is a question we hear not only from our students but also, for example, from members of our own families, especially those who grow crops and raise animals in the countryside. We have been asked the same question by senior officials in a number of Ministries, including the Ministry of Education. At first, we thought they were out to eradicate us from the university syllabus, as part of their latest cost-cutting drive. It turned out, however, that they really did want our advice on a proposal to introduce social anthropology to the secondary school curriculum in our country. The intention was to add a more international and multicultural dimension than was covered by existing school subjects, such as history and 'civics', which confined themselves overwhelmingly to Poland and selected strands of European history. As sometimes happens, even in the best of marriages, we could not quite agree on our response, and so, in the end, we submitted separate reports.

My report emphasised the achievements of applied anthropology. The first part drew on my collaboration with officials responsible for the Aid and Development Program, to advise them on how best to take local cultural conditions into account in the design and implementation of development projects. Inputs from an anthropologist who has specific local knowledge are essential if interventions are to succeed. Even an anthropologist who, though not knowing much about the particular location, has experience from other, similar interventions, really can make a difference. Anthropological knowledge is not a substitute for the precise technical skills of engineers, soil scientists etc. but it can facilitate the optimum deployment, or we might say the 'translation' of this scientific knowledge. It can also help outside 'experts' to appreciate local knowledge, not only for solving 'technical' problems in the local environment but also for its own sake, as a cultural value. In these very concrete ways, anthropological knowledge may be useful.

The basic point does not apply only to remote places with traditions very different from our own but also here in Central Europe. Anthropological enquiries in our own society can also make a positive contribution. For example, work on the new minorities taking shape in our big cities might help to ensure better inter-cultural understanding than has been achieved so far in Britain, France and Germany. In the rural context, anthropological work could be highly relevant to the decisions taken in Brussels on European farm policy, or at least to the mitigating of their effects for millions of Polish peasants.

Happily, it seems that recognition of the usefulness of anthropology in this sense has increased more or less continuously since Bronio made the case for 'applied anthropology' in the 1920s. Nowadays many anthropologists are employed by governmental and international bodies such as the World Bank. Their expertise in sensitive observation can also be focused on bureaucratic organisations, including those which employ them. This can both extend our knowledge of how such institutions work and increase their efficiency. It follows that to invest in anthropological expertise may be a smart decision for a rational profit-maximising corporation as well as for governments and non-governmental organisations.

We have also been approached by officials of our Foreign Ministry in a rather different context. They wanted us to advise them on the causes and the motivations behind some very painful conflicts that took place not long ago, in a region not so very far away from here. Bronio believed that warfare was yet another field to which the anthropologist might make a distinctive contribution. Where he spoke of nationality conflicts we are likely nowadays to speak of 'ethnic cleansing', but the patterns of behaviour have not changed so much. Anthropologists can help to explain this behaviour, not as something biologically inherent in human nature, but as a variable that depends crucially on the use of myths and symbols. They can point out the contingent nature of the groups that engage in violent conflict and their long-term interdependencies with their opponents. This is very important at times when the groups own representations emphasise the opposite. Please note that in cases such as this I fully accept the need to go beyond the 'local model'.

Our Galician field trip showed that we Poles need to learn from our history, above all, from our failure to resolve our conflicts with our own immediate neighbours. I argue that cultural minorities, not necessarily defined as ethnic, are being formed all the time, and they very often correspond to inequalities of social class.  Anthropological observers of these processes can illuminate the symbols people use to maintain their group boundaries. Such analyses, if the results are properly communicated, can make a contribution to mutual understanding and tolerance. This was the basis on which I proposed adding social anthropology to the school curriculum, as a way of disseminating these ideals among all our citizens in their formative years. I am still waiting for a decision on my proposal from the Ministry.

ETD: I have doubts about this educational agenda and so I prepared an independent report for the Ministry. I do of course share my good wife's ideals, and I too would like to see more social equality as well as more mutual understanding and tolerance in the world; but when it comes to the school curriculum I worry about sending contradictory measures and over-simplifying the issues. Most applications of anthropological knowledge involve simplification. The consultant who prepares a report on a so-called development project usually has to gloss over at least some elements of the internal diversity among the people affected by the project. Such simplification may be justified if it leads to outcomes that all oberservers may agree are better than those which would occur without any anthropological input, but I think many schoolchildren might wonder why anthropologists favour intervention at all. They are young and idealistic, and most associate anthropology with the study of human diversity. It will confuse pupils if they are taught that anthropolgists are actively engaged in efforts to 'modernise' and 'develop' people in remote parts of the world in other words, to make them more like ourselves. Indeed, whatever Bronio may have written about the importance of 'applied anthropology', I don't really think his heart was in it. In their heart of hearts, most social anthropologists want to keep people different, not make them more like each other.

Anthropological expertise is increasingly expected to contribute to 'inter-cultural understanding' between migrant groups in large cities, or to explain 'ethnic conflicts' wherever they occur. In these cases the emphasis is placed on differences. The danger once again is that we shall end up reinforcing the view that most pupils in this country have acquired long before they reach secondary school, namely that the world is made up of 'thing-like' cultures, the dominant one in this country being that which we call Polish. The question is: can we hope to educate schoolchildren away from the notion of culture as a thing, with sharp boundaries, towards the notion of culture as a process, with boundaries that are always fuzzy and permeable? At your age, as university students, particularly those of you who have travelled a lot, we expect you to be capable of questioning the 'reified' notion of culture, though no one who is brought up with such a view of the world finds it easy to be rid of its influence. Perhaps the time will come when Polish schoolchildren grow up with different notions of identity from those which predominate today; but until then, I am reluctant to argue for the introduction of a general social anthropology program into our secondary schools.

What I proposed instead to the authorities in the Ministry was adding an anthropology component to the teaching of religion or contemporary history. Specifically, I suggested that the most decisive change in our lifetime had been the end of a long experiment with a novel world religion, namely communism. I proposed that the Polish case be compared with others in this region, and also world-wide. I remain convinced that the rise and fall of communism was a cycle of great evolutionary significance for the whole world and not just for those Eurasian countries which experienced the movement most directly. It is surely worth exploring what light anthropology can shed on momentous events in the recent history of one's own country. I probably made a mistake, however, in suggesting that communism as an ideology could be fruitfully compared with Roman Catholicism and nationalism. That must have been a bit too much for the officials in the Ministry, who turned down my proposals rather brusquely.

DD: We are poles apart on these educational issues! Professor, you are deliberately distorting the way I am using the concept of culture. Of course I don't see cultures corresponding neatly to nations and territories. I made it quite clear that I am interested in all kinds of cultural diversity, not only the sort that we call ethnic. Ethnic and national groups are very important forms of identity in the contemporary world, but they are still no more than a subset of culture.

Behind the Professor's worries about oversimplification I'm afraid I see an old-fashioned élitism. Perhaps he acquired this from his teachers in Britain, where there has always been some reluctance to see the discipline expand and find its place in the modern world. Those who disapprove of anthropologists working in development agencies and business enterprises will also disapprove of teaching anthropology to schoolchildren. This was one of the reasons why so many British social anthropologists came from the upper social classes. Pupils in ordinary state schools were simply never given a chance to discover the discipline.

It seems to me that anthropology must be brought into the school curriculum if we are to transcend the limits of national and European-centred thinking. Moreover there is a demand for it among our schoolchildren: they are eager to find out more about the cultural diversity of this planet. At the moment, Bronislaw Malinowski is almost unknown to Polish schoolchildren. Yet his work alone could provide an immensely stimulating introduction to the discipline. I think that introducing anthropology into schools can play a positive role in changing those deep-seated attitudes which, we both agree, pose a problem that is by no means restricted to Poland. Why sit back and wait for attitudes to change, when active anthropological education program could help to promote tolerance and understanding right now? Secondary school pupils are quite capable of grasping the complexity of the world in which they live, and anthropologists can give them useful tools and a range of challenging data from other places that can help them to understand their own society better.

The basic course I should like to teach would be called 'Cultural Differences and Human Rights'. The purpose would be to emphasise the diversity of human cultures and to show that, in every field of activity we care to look at, there are exciting alternatives to Polish and European traditions. We should encourage the pupils to join international organisations to promote cultural pluralism and to protect the rights of cultural minorities everywhere. Intellectuals have shirked their social responsibilities for too long.

ETD: I think these points are all very valuable. However, I worry that this will lead to exaggerated attention being paid to the exotic, to romantic notions of primitive folk at home with nature. It can be counterproductive to mix scholarly and political commitments. Professors have seldom made good politicians. Human rights activists usually began as critics of all forms of state power, but many are increasingly ready to approve of large states intervening in the affairs of smaller ones if this seems to be justified on 'humanitarian' grounds. Having for so long opposed Soviet domination in this country and the rest of Eastern Europe, I don't think it's consistent if we now accept American domination, especially if this takes military forms. Recall the views you heard expressed last week by the Lemko museum curator . . .

Unfortunately we are running out of time. Does anyone have any last questions?

Ania: You, Professor, have advised us to acquire field experience in an 'unfamiliar' setting before attempting to work as an anthropologist in our own societies. Given our backgrounds in western Europe and America, do you think Poland qualifies as 'unfamiliar' in this sense?

ETD: (Pause) In many ways, yes. I hope you have noticed that we still do quite a lot of things rather differently in this 'old Slavonic city', as Malinowski described it. The differences may be fewer than they were in his day, but they are likely to remain significant for a long time to come. Your experience this summer does not, however, qualify you as anthropological fieldworkers. By requiring you to live in an international dormitory and to attend these classes, have made it impossible for you to live as an anthropologist should, integrated into the local society. You would need to stay much longer and go much deeper into some particular social context to be able to write a satisfying ethnography. There is no way in which you could achieve this depth in the course of our summer school, but all the same we hope that your assignments and trips have given you some inkling of what it is like to do fieldwork.


We are pleased to invite you, on this last evening of the summer school, to join all the other classes in a ceremony to commemorate the 600th anniversary of the refounding of the Jagiellonian University. The Rector will make a speech in the Philharmonic Hall, and after he has spoken our Dean will present you with your certificates. As you know, the Malinowski Prize is awarded to the student who submits the best journal, the student we judge to have been the most conscientious and imaginative in carrying out all the small assignments that we have given you during the last six weeks. This year we have a problem. We cannot collect your journals today for scrutiny, as we have done in past years, because they are currently being scrutinised by Ukrainian security police! There is of course one exception. Tom did not accompany us on that memorable excursion last Saturday. We have inspected his journal and found that it reaches a high standard. For his initiative and thoroughness, particularly in his archival work, we have agreed to recommend him for the Prize, which will be presented by the Dean. We would like you, however, for the sake of the summer school's future, not to divulge too much to the Dean about all your experiences last week. Please do not in any circumstances mention the minibus.

Figure 84: Tom receives the Malinowski prize from the Dean (photo courtesy of Tilo Grätz)

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