Politics, Pedagogy and Anthropology – Three perspectives on Education

This post is a response to a proposition, from Ditte, as to understand Education from the different perspectives of Politics, Pedagogy and Anthropology. I will start by explaining this proposition.

Starting with politics, this is basically a “naive” view of Education that takes the “official story” of education to be true. From this perspective, Education is a place where people learn stuff that they need to participate in social life, to become “citizens” of modern society. In school, thus, people acquire knowedge that are useful for everyday life, for work, for democracy.  To this can be added that tests in school actually measure amounts and quality of such knowledge, and that the actual documents – grades, exams – that are produced in the education system, as end points of a system of training, testing and grading, actually indicates the possession of the kind of knowledge that Education is intended to provide.

From this perspective, it makes sense to expand school for the purpose of increasing the amount of knowledge possessed by citizens. For instance, it may be considered that “life is more complex now”, and thus – given the idea that learning as knowledge production is proportional to time – it may be deemed necessary to increase the time spent in school. It also makes sense to increase time spent in school insofar as test results turn out bad, e.g. in PISA.

From the perspective of pedagogy, however, things are not that easy. Knowledge is still considered a prerequisite for everyday life and citizenship, but it is not clear that such knowledge is actually produced in school. In particular, it is not clear that tests actually indicates possession of the kind of knowledge that is actually sought for. Documents – grades, exams – are thus considered with suspicion from the pedagogical perspective. They are, always to some extent, indicative of nothing, empty. Pedagogy has developed elaborate theories of learning as develpment as transformation of subjectivity; pedagogy insist that learning is precarious and thus that time does not equal learning (as politics would have it). To the contrary, experts need to care for the proper performance of teaching for learning to occur.

While it is easy to understand why it makes sense to reform education, from the pedagogical perspective, it is not obvious why school should be expanded. The insistence on the need for reform is equal to the claim that experts are necessary for school to work properly.

The anthropological perspective, finally, considered education as a particular instance of an initiation rite. The “usefulness” of knowledge is not taken at face value, but rather interpreted as a “way of talking” about the prerequisites of modern adulthood. As Ditte put it:

Rituals are a three stage process beginning with a preparation state (seperation),  followed by a stage of transition (marginal phase) and ending with integration into society (agrgation phase).

The marginal phase contains ordeals and “surviving” these is to pass the test.

The ordeals are indicative of adulthood i.e. being a part of the oikos (what it takes to be part of the oikos varies).

The point now, of the anthropological perspective, is that we can interpret our expansion of the educational sphere as an expansion of a particular ritual. We somehow think that we need more the “product” of this ritual, i.e. knowledge; we are not satisfied with how it prepares youth for adulthood – this is how we interpret the “test results” of education. We thus “expand the marginal phase” of the rite of initiation.


I come here to think of a distinction I made in my dissertation, between the “outside” and “inside” of school. They largely correspond to how you describe politics and pedagogy. From the “outside” everything is very easy, things work basically as they should, school do what it is supposed to do. But from the inside it is quite the opposite – nothing works, everything needs to be reformed. Still, however, pedagogy is committed to the same fundamental assumptions about how school should work. The distance between ideal and reality is only so much larger “from the inside”. From the inside, too, the world of schooling is much richer, filled with images and theories, about how it should work, what works and not, what should be done, etcetera. In my dissertation I talked about a multiplicity of “sublime objects” that captures desire. From the outside school is just one large blob: education.

As I indicated already above, I find the question you raise about pedagogy and expansion interesting. Also, the question about the history of schooling – why it emerged, and the relationship between this initial expansion and pedagogy: Did pedagogy drive the expansion, or did it rather just accompany it?

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