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Technology as Cultural Tyranny?

A TC conference on Oct. 21-22 brings anthropology’s lens to bear

Hervé Varenne, Professor of Education and Chair of the Department of International & Transcultural Studies
Hervé Varenne, Professor of Education and Chair of the Department of International & Transcultural Studies
Teachers College is hosting an anthropology and education conference in which the nation’s leading anthropologists will probe some of the most vexing questions facing teachers today: How do new media challenge schools even as they entice students in surprising directions? What do children do with digital media? And how have design and innovation become a kind of cultural tyranny, enslaving students and teachers alike to the dominant technologies of the day?

The conference, “Beyond learning: Design and innovation in the production of the new normal,” will be held this Friday and Saturday, October 21 and 22 in the College’s Milbank Chapel. The conference is free and open to the public.

Hervé Varenne, Professor of Education, and Chair of the Department of International and Transcultural Studies, says anthropology is a vital field with much to teach us about life, education and human nature. And many of the lectures and seminars at the conference will examine the larger phenomenon of how what we perceive as normal can be transformed into something new.   

“In this conference we will explore a new anthropology, which refuses the idea that culture is a causative agent of either individual selves or social orders,” Varenne adds. “Humans are impossible to predict – they will always surprise you. And as teachers know, it’s hard to manipulate people to do what you want. They will always find ways to thwart you.”

The conference begins Friday, October 21, at 10 a.m., with welcoming remarks from TC President Susan Fuhrman. At 10:30 a.m., anthropologist Amy Stambach will give the day’s keynote address, titled “Old School, New Times, and Innovation after the Internet.” Stambach, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has done extensive anthropological fieldwork in East Africa, so her lecture will touch upon comparative and international education.   

On Saturday, October 22, there will be two keynote addresses, the first of which will be given by Grey Gundaker, Visiting Professor at TC, who is also Professor of Anthropology at the College of William & Mary. Her talk, titled “Tyrannies little and large: The politics of design and innovation,” will examine how the tech industry creates products that can for a while come to dominate a society. Mimi Ito, a cultural anthropologist who is a professor in residence at the University of California, Irvine, will give the second address, titled “Geeking Out and Leveling Up: How gamers, fans, and makers learn through affinity networks.” Ito is an expert on how children use media and communications in ever-changing ways.

The conference builds on an esteemed tradition of anthropology and education at Teachers College, Varenne said. The late Margaret Mead, the world’s foremost cultural anthropologist, taught at the College from 1948 to 1960.  Mead’s protégé, education historian Lawrence Cremin, who became president of Teachers College in 1974, built upon her understanding of education as occurring not just in classrooms but in all theaters of life. Keeping their tradition alive, Teachers College now has the largest graduate program of anthropology education in the nation. Hosting the upcoming conference is a way to keep the field of anthropology relevant to students, teachers and researchers working in all kinds of disciplines.

“In bringing together the world’s leading experts in the field of anthropology and education,” says Varenne, “the conference promises to offer many new insights into the profoundly human matters of how we live, learn and transform our world.”

Published Wednesday, Oct 19, 2016