"I like Those Other Cultures Now": Teaching High School Anthropology

Article excerpt

"Anthropology helps you think more about yourself and your way of life."

"Anthropology is good to learn because it helps you realize that all cultures have their own special qualities."

"Through anthropology, you will understand that although some things other cultures do are different, they are not weird."

These statements, written by high school students at the end of a year-long course in anthropology, indicate the many ways that anthropology can help students develop an appreciation of and respect for cultures-their own as well as others'. In our post-September 11th, 2001, world, the need for teaching tolerance is more urgent than ever. This article explores why anthropology is an important subject in the social studies, and describes how a group of high school students became more culturally aware after taking a class in anthropology.

Why Anthropology?

Too often, students and adults are quick to dismiss behavior that is different from their own as "weird," "stupid," or "wrong," whether they are talking about a fellow classmate, someone from eighteenth-century America, or a philosopher from second-century Greece. Anthropological ideas teach students to view human behavior in a cultural context. Students learn to respond to behavior that is different from their own without passing judgment. They learn that "cultural variations are normal and positive and expected." (1)

According to anthropology's concept of culture, "all humans possess values, belief systems, and methods of constructing realities that are based on an accumulation of shared experiences and influences." (2) Although this idea may seem complex, teachers can make it comprehensible to students of any age. In fact, Lee Little Soldier advocates teaching anthropology in the elementary grades, claiming: "It is important for young children to be exposed to the abstract concept of culture ... and develop an understanding of how and why groups of people differ from one another in their customs, habits and traditions." (3)

Anthropology is rarely taught as a separate subject in elementary or secondary school. Its underlying focus, however-the study of culture-informs all aspects of the social studies curriculum, from government to geography. Social studies is, after all, the study of humans in various places and at various points in time. An understanding of culture is essential for approaching the topics of social studies.

Setting

I taught anthropology at Cholla High School for five years. Cholla is located in Tucson, Arizona, and serves the southern and western parts of the city, including the Pascua Yaqui Indian Reservation, known as New Pascua. This part of the city is predominantly Hispanic (mostly Mexican American) and ranges from middle- to lower-middle-class. The ethnic composition of the school is roughly half Hispanic. The remaining students are white, African American, and Native American. The faculty of the school is also diverse. Despite the commitment and dedication of its teachers, the school suffers from typical urban high school problems: low test scores, high absenteeism, high dropout rates, and a low percentage of students attending four-year colleges.

The anthropology class that I taught was offered for social studies elective credit and was open to ninth through twelfth graders. The classes usually consisted of 65 percent freshmen and 35 percent from upper grades. Each year, some students chose the class, and some were placed there. This always created an interesting mix of motivated students (those who had actually read the course catalog and consciously selected anthropology), and students who had never bothered to register for classes at all but were simply dumped into the class. I found no difference in the students' ability to embrace the ideas of the course.

Curriculum

The curriculum that I created was based on six-week units of study, each focusing on different aspects of human culture: basics of culture, ethnocentrism, language, ritual, kinship, art, religion, health and healing. …