Cultural Anthropology in Secondary Schools: An Essential Part of a 21st Century Education

Cultural anthropology should be part of every student's secondary school education. Those who study anthropology know that the discipline cultivates resilience, persistence, confidence, openness, creativity, courage, patience, adaptability, perspective taking, empathy and self-control.
08/26/2015 03:47 pm ET Updated Aug 26, 2016

Cultural anthropology should be part of every student's secondary school education. Those who study anthropology know that the discipline cultivates resilience, persistence, confidence, openness, creativity, courage, patience, adaptability, perspective taking, empathy and self-control. Studying anthropology at the pivotal secondary school age of accelerated personal and intellectual development, when students are actively seeking to understand their place in the world, equips students to eschew ethnocentric thinking and to better understand and appreciate the beauty in the diversity of human experiences. Anthropology teaches students to take another's perspective with empathy which contributes to the creation of a more peaceful world -- free of hatred based on religious misconceptions and free of judgments based on differing cultural traditions.

Global education, global citizenship, global competence, cross-cultural exchanges, authentic immersion and community service experiences, are major programmatic and curricular themes in schools today. The theoretical base of holistic and systems thinking, provided by the study of anthropology, will positively inform the global cross-cultural student experience.

Student immersion trips are often to developing nations and are intended to expose students to other ways of living and being. The problem of sending students to live in different cultures without the proper anthropological tools and background, however, is that the students do not fully understand and appreciate what they are experiencing. What may seem "backward," and needing to be changed, to a high school student may in fact be an inventive, brilliantly complex, cultural adaptation to a particular environment and ecosystem. Without the ability to look at a cultural practice within the context of that culture, students often walk away with skewed understandings of different cultures and the deep desire to unnecessarily "fix" perceived problems.

The anthropological methodology of participant observation also equips students with the tools necessary to successfully navigate cross-cultural experiences. When one participates in another culture one is forced to set aside previously held prejudices and to ask questions; it is through the asking of questions that one comes to a fuller understanding and appreciation of another person's experience and view of the world.

The phrase "in the hyper and interconnected 21st Century world" is a common justification for global education. This interconnectivity is often discussed in economic terms and the importance of cultural understanding is often rightly emphasized as a tool that will help students succeed in their chosen, generally business related, fields. However, few teachers or students fully understand the impact of global interconnectivity on the marginalized and indigenous peoples of the world. While we watch the rising sea levels as a theoretical and future problem, the peoples of Oceania and the Indian Ocean are facing those challenges today. We have a moral imperative to interject the ideas of anthropology and the common human experience into the discourse and emphasize social justice and the need to act responsibly, with true cultural understanding, to make the world a more equitable and sustainable place.

The increasingly complex nature of our world demands that we teach anthropology in secondary schools. Additionally, the current educational dialogue, as exemplified by Grant Lichtman's book #EdJourney: A Roadmap to the future of Education, is emphasizing the very same qualities that are cultivated in anthropology. Of fundamental importance is the fact that anthropology is well suited for secondary schools: the content is engaging, the field offers invaluable lenses through which students should view the world, and, anthropology and its lessons can be integrated in many different ways into already existing high school curriculums.

For example, at St. Mark's School here in Massachusetts the traditional freshman history course, which focuses on globalization, has been infused with anthropological content. Students in that class, in addition to having an understanding of the historical processes of globalization, leave the course with enough anthropological training to view the world through less ethnocentric eyes, and are trained to ask the fundamental questions: "How does this cultural practice fit into the overall context of the culture" and "What can I learn from this different culture?" Finally, as schools become more multicultural and diverse and seek to create environments that are tolerant, it is, as noted anthropologist Ruth Benedict said, "the purpose of anthropology to make the world safe for human difference."

Laura P. Appell-Warren has a doctorate in Psychological Anthropology from Harvard University. She is the director of The Global Citizenship Institute - A Salzburg Global Seminar and St. Mark's School Collaboration - and is the director of Global Citizenship at St. Mark's School in Southborough, Massachusetts. She has taught cultural anthropology at secondary schools since 1993 and is the author of books and journal articles on psychological anthropology, general anthropology, doing fieldwork and on the teaching of anthropology.