I’m back from talking with my son’s grade one class about what a cultural anthropologist is and what a cultural anthropologist does. My invitation to speak to the class came as part of a classroom unit on jobs and the tools people use to do their jobs. As many of you helped me think through how to explain what it is that I do, I thought I’d tell how it went.
The class has almost twenty energetic and enthusiastic children in it. My son introduced me by name, stated that I was an anthropologist and then asked the class to say the word. I took over and explained that I was often a teacher but that I wanted to talk more about another aspect of my job – the part in which I tried to learn about how other people lived. To start, I showed a picture of a hunter demonstrating how to clean a small animal. The kids tried to guess what kind of animal it was – and no, it was not a hedgehog. I asked about the kind of structure in which the people cleaned the game and the tools they used. We talked about the kinds of meat the students liked – noting that most of us eat and enjoy cow meat. From here, we looked at pictures of animals and talked about the process of making leather from animal skins.
On your suggestions, I took several things that kids could handle and touch. I asked for help identifying skin scraping tools, thread holders, and the materials in footwear, gloves, and packs. Man, it’s hard not to get caught up in material culture! One of the packs I have are for dogs, and the students couldn’t quite figure that out without being told. No, they weren’t for elephants. The horn of a bighorn sheep was not from a mountain lion. I had a piece of clothing used at special events and asked the students when they dressed up. I was told: halloween, parties, and halloween parties. I suppose it’s reasonable that halloween is still front of mind. The students did not ask too many questions. They were curious about the difference between what I do and what archaeologists do. They were clear with me that archaeologists dig. I had to agree.
Throughout, I referred to the people with whom I work as friends. I did not use ethnonyms or generalities like native, aboriginal, or Indian. I tried not to talk about age-inappropriate things, all the time wondering if vegan parents would be upset their kids reporting a classroom presentation on hunting, meat, and cleaning skins. I didn’t try to deliver a message directly; rather, my goal was simply to remind students that other people live differently than they do and that such differences are just fine.
This experience reminds me that it is a shame anthropology isn’t taught (in most places) in primary or secondary schools. The kids appeared to like hearing about how others lived. And the messages that are at the heart of anthropology are useful and instructive to people of any age. I’d like to work more with my son’s school to get those messages out.
(Thank you to all of you who offered helpful suggestions about how to speak to Grade 1s about anthropology via twitter, facebook, and email.)