Teachers College has announced that Hervé Varenne, Professor of Education, will assume the endowed Gardner Cowles Professor of Anthropology and Education chair.
“Hervé Varenne is a brilliant scholar who has helped define the field of education anthropology and launch the careers of many TC students,” said Stephanie J. Rowley, Teachers College’s Provost, Dean and Vice President for Academic Affairs. “We are proud to announce his appointment as the new Cowles chair.”
Varenne, Chair of the College’s Department of International and Transcultural Studies, is a 50-year TC faculty member and past recipient of the Council on Anthropology and Education’s prestigious George and Louise Spindler lifetime achievement award. His scholarship defies categorization, ranging from an exploration of the structured diversity in a small Midwest town — work that earned him comparisons to Alexis de Tocqueville, the 19th-century French diplomat and observer of American life, for his “insights into American culture as expressed through the actions of ordinary people” — to topics that include family dynamics, suburban high school education, global humanity and technology.
Major common threads in Varenne’s thought are a focus on the agency of learners, the importance of education that occurs in informal settings outside the classroom, the power of self-determination, and anthropology as an applied discipline.
“‘Education,’ most conventionally, is equated with training embodied all but unconsciously, and with schoolings that redirect habits,” writes Varenne, who was among the first members of TC faculty to use a personal computer, in his most recent book, Educating in Life: Ethnographies of Challenging New Normals, (Routledge, 2019). “In contrast, our goal is to bring out the work of all involved, day in and day out, at routine and extraordinary times when they struggle with habits, trainings, and instructions that just do not fit experience.”
Varenne was born in France and earned his doctorate at the University of Chicago, where the faculty included the legendary anthropologist Clifford Geertz. At TC, he was deeply influenced by the work of the great education historian and future TC president Lawrence Cremin, who was renowned for his own exploration of out-of-school learning venues such as television.
“Much of my work and research was triggered by Cremin, who inspired me to look at education from a perspective from beyond schools,” said Varenne.
Along with luminaries such Margaret Mead, Lambros Comitas and George Bond, Varenne helped establish the College as perhaps the leading program in education and anthropology. In more recent years, he has sought to recast the field as a lens onto human originality and variability, arguing that it has “much to teach us about life, education and human nature.”
“Humans are impossible to predict — they will always surprise you,” he said in 2016, at the first of a series of conferences he has convened on the field’s future. “And as teachers know, it’s hard to manipulate people to do what you want. They will always find ways to thwart you.” He urged the conference’s participants to “explore a new anthropology, which refuses the idea that culture is a causative agent of either individual selves or social orders.”
In teaching courses that include the “Ethnography of Education,” “American Culture,” “Technology and Culture,” and “The Dynamics of Family Life,” Varenne has become known as a generous mentor who collaborates and co-publishes with his students. Educating in Life, for example, is subtitled “a collective book,” and the listed co-authors are eight of Varenne’s former TC students (Juliette de Wolfe, Jill Koyama, Gabrielle Oliveira, Sunanda Sammadar Corrado, Michael Scroggins, Daniel Souleles, Jennifer Van Tiem and Sarah Wessler).
“Throughout its history,” President Thomas Bailey said, “Teachers College has brought together bold thinkers with the vision to create and evolve fields of study to meet the needs of our times. Hervé Varenne has exemplified this tradition in prompting anthropology to increasingly focus on education from the learner’s point of view, and to understand how, as John Dewey argued, we make personal meaning of what we learn in applying it to our own lives and communities. We are fortunate that Professor Varenne will continue his work in his new role as the Gardner Cowles Professor of Education and Anthropology.”
Reflecting his emphasis on academic partnership, several of his seven books are co-authored, including Successful Failure: The School America Builds (1998; with Ray McDermott); and Alternative Anthropological Perspectives in Education (2008, with TC Professor Emeritus Edmund W. Gordon).
Varenne, for his part, called himself humbled and grateful for his new appointment. “It is really an honor just to be honored,” he said.
The endowed Cowles Chair is named for the late Gardner Cowles Jr., who served on TC’s board for 25 years. Cowles was co-founder of Look magazine and the Cowles Company, once the publisher of the Minneapolis Star and other Midwest newspapers. The Chair was last held by the renowned TC anthropologist Lambros Comitas, who passed away in 2020.