Knowing thyself and others

Why anthropology should be incorporated
into the curriculum from primary school


Anthropology is a wide-ranging subject. If we include archaeology, which some do, in its remit, it can basically cover all human culture and society that’s ever been. It seems to me and to many anthropologists that all this information that’s been gathered in ever-increasing fine detail might be of use to everybody, ‘coz it’s very interesting stuff.

I’m not going to plunge into case histories and ethnographic examples in this post – I will do more detailed writing on this topic in the future – suffice it to say that I found that studying anthropology blew my preconceptions about our species utterly to fragments. And I think that whatever culture you were raised within, you will find the same.

The beauty of anthropology is the way that it hooks you in with the exotic, the gruesome, the ingenious and the just plain fascinating. Who can resist that cocktail? As you are marvelling at just how extremely weird people can be, it insists you think about what needs, environments and challenges all these behaviours and objects have been invented to cope with. Reflecting on these human universals, you are suddenly confronted with the weirdness of your own culture and its ways of solving these puzzles – how to eat? how to procreate? how to deal with social tensions? how to create meaning in our lives? Are any of the ways that we do those things here in modern Britain any less weird than the ways of people living in a longhouse in 1950s Borneo, when viewed as if one were an extra-terrestrial visitor?

So not only does it wear down the idea of ‘normal’; the study of almost any topic in anthropology will enable you to think critically about your own society, enabling you to make choices about what beliefs and practices you choose for you own life, and to confront ‘the other’ (which has often been used as the term for very different people, places and behaviours, but could just as easily refer to any human who does not inhabit your own skull), with curiosity and enthusiasm, rather than fear and trepidation.

Quite apart from this, there are amazing stories of human resourcefulness and creativity, how to live sustainably, how to live autonomously, how to turn disaster into culture. The stories told by our brothers and sisters (and gender non-binary siblings!) from all over the world and from throughout our species history, can help our efforts to understand each other, to break down barriers without losing diversity, to share information on how we cope with globalised capitalism and the escalation of violent conflict for profit, how we can best bring food, shelter, protection, and human rights to everyone.

So I think that modules in anthropology should be taught from the beginning of schooling. Critical thinking in itself is the single most valuable thing to teach any child. Instead of teaching our children to ask questions, we are teaching them ‘the answers’. Reveal just how narrow those answers are, expand the field of what those questions can be, by acknowledging that no element of our lives is to be simply accepted as the right or only way of doing things. Yes, it’s destabilising, probably more time-consuming than simply teaching answers, and we don’t know how children taught in that way would respond. I like to think it would give a lot of hope to the ones who feel crushed into categories that feel wrong for them, inspiration to artists, musicians, film-makers and dancers, fire up the imaginations of inventors and entrepreneurs, and help us to make our communities stronger and more satisfying places to live.

It’s not easy to find out about anthropology, which is the main criticism that anyone could have about any academic discipline. I hope to write a few basic essays on this blog in the future to help give a way in to the subject. Meanwhile, a few things to click on:

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