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TC Education Anthropologist Herve Varenne Receives Lifetime Achievement Award

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Herve Varenne

Herve Varenne

Herve Varenne, TC Professor of Anthropology and Education, has received the George and Louise Spindler Award for lifetime achievement from the Council on Anthropology and Education. The honor – named for the husband-wife team who, along with TC’s Margaret Mead, did much to establish the field – was announced this past week at the annual meetings of the American Anthropological Association. Varenne and Elsie Rockwell, a prominent Mexican education anthropologist, each received this year’s Spindler award.

The Council’s award committee credited the French-born Varenne with exerting a “profound effect” on the field of anthropology and education, noting that his first book, Americans Together: Structured Diversity in a Midwestern Town (1977), “sparked a comparison to another famous French observer, Alexis de Tocqueville, because of [Varenne’s] insights into American culture as expressed through the actions of ordinary people.”

More broadly, the committee said that Varenne is “widely recognized for advancing theory and asking the counterintuitive questions…including: Are people really predisposed toward anything? Is there an ‘American culture’? Is learning outside school settings as powerful or more powerful than that of in-school settings? Why do we assume ‘community’ and is it even possible?”  

The flavor of Varenne’s ideas comes through in an essay he wrote in TC Today magazine in the spring 2012 issue of TC Today magazine, which was dedicated to technology.

Noting the ease with which non-experts from children to grandmothers have learned to operated computers, Varenne asked, “What if teaching and learning are not specialized activities? What if they are ubiquitous processes regularly activated when conditions require them? Dewey intuited this, but we must investigate a more radical set of opportunities. Could schools simulate the conditions under which newcomers realize that they must learn a skill and find the people who will help them? Perhaps by specifying curricula, pedagogies and the experts one must go through to be certified as knowing something, schools have been unwittingly limiting educational activities and the rewards they produce.” 

In nominating Varenne for the award, Jill Koyama, a faculty member in education leadership and policy at SUNY Buffalo, praised him for demonstrating how “cultural categories have perceived, real, and often, enduring consequences,” particularly for those in education.”

Another nominator, Lesley Bartlett, TC Associate Professor of Education, hailed Varenne “for shifting the attention of the social sciences from ‘learning’ as a process with lasting individual consequences, to ‘education’ as an open, collective, and deliberative process of continual transformation and change.”

And Ray McDermott, Professor of Anthropology at Stanford’s Graduate School of Education, wrote in his nomination of Varenne:  “Call him genius, call him creative, call him the new de Tocqueville (150 years later), they all apply, but the important point is that he puts on the table, every time he speaks, every time he writes, a different and important point of view on the American nation, the American school, and the American family.”

At TC, Varenne’s many courses have included the Ethnography of Education, American Culture, Technology and Culture, and The Dynamics of Family Life. His books include American School Language: The Rhetorical Structuring of Daily Life in a Suburban High School (1983); Ambiguous Harmony: Family Talk in America (1992); Successful Failure: The School America Builds (1998; with Ray McDermott); and Alternative Anthropological Perspectives in Education (2008, with TC Professor Emeritus Edmund W. Gordon).

In each of those works, the emphasis has been on determining an applied approach for his field that answers the needs of the day. Or as Varenne himself put it at a conference he convened at TC this past October on the future of anthropology in education: “It is not self-evident that our discipline and its approaches are sustainable. We must figure out how to educate our audience about the power of what we do.”

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