Enculturation and Acculturation

I’ve been writing my M.A. thesis over the past couple months, and have been thinking a lot about the role of culture in how students learn, how teachers teach, and how we prepare students for the world.

Aikenhead distinguishes between Assimilation, Enculturation, and Autonomous Acculturation. These three approaches toward education, with a focus on cultures, need to be distinguished and understood.

Assimilation is forcing a new a culture onto a student whose worldview diverges from that of the culture. This is what was being done at Canada’s residential schools.

Enculturation is an attempt to bring students into a new divergent culture. This is what universities do for science students.

Autonomous Acculturation is finding ways for students to adopt a new culture under their own power. This would be like lending a student a popular science book.

Softer approaches are labeled “anthropological”, and are akin to taking a trip to the zoo. The teacher might say, “this is how scientists work”, and the students learn about scientific culture, rather than being turned into scientists.

The chess videos of Ben Finegold are a great example of enculturation. GM Finegold identifies heroes (Morphy, Carlsen), trades in quips (“never play G3”, “put it in H”), establishes values for the community (high ELO ratings, clever play), and relates the mythology of the field. The people who attend the lectures, or watch online, are submitting themselves to the enculturation provided by GM Finegold, and thus adopting the culture of chess as their own. There is little doubt that the children who attend his class (like the ubiquitous Arjen) see themselves as chess players, idolize chess grandmasters, and trade in the culture of chess.

What I am seeking to understand is how society should bring children into the culture of science. In the former Soviet Union, children went to schools that placed great emphasis on maths and the sciences: students who did well won prizes, and could be assured of successful careers within the Soviet technocratic apparatus. This is enculturation, as part of mainstream education, starting from young ages.

In the West, students who develop a love of science generally do it outside of their classes — through extracurricular activities, through popular science books and websites, or because of teachers who inspired them to continue thinking about science outside of school. This view helps to explain some of the continued disproportional representation of students from poor school districts, in spite of efforts to ensure high-quality classes for these students. These students, because of their socio-economic situations, and because of a lack of extracurricular programmes through which they can autonomously acculturate themselves to science, are less likely to adopt the culture of science as their own before the critical point of applying to university.

My question, then, is what role schools should play in connecting students with the culture(s) of science (and other cultures, like the humanities, arts, and trades). I think schools should teach using an anthropological approach, and provide plentiful opportunities for students to autonomously acculturate themselves during the course of their education. It is too much to ask that students jump wholeheartedly into a new culture every 45 minutes, but visiting new exhibits in a cultural zoo, followed by some time for students to deeply acculturate themselves via projects, and under the supervision of a cultural transmitter like Ben Finegold — now, that would be great.


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