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The Need for Anthropology, Earlier: Teaching Anthropology at the Secondary Level

Written by: Meghan Chidsey
Published on: Feb 2, 2023

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Photo credit: Gwendolyn Wood's illustration of Gareth Barkin's photo "Borobudur Freestyle"


Secondary level teacher, Dr. Meghan Chidsey, discusses the need for anthropology to be taught earlier in students' education. The end of the article features a video where Meghan interviewed her students about the importance of anthropology and the impact it's had on their education.


While completing the latter stages of a dissertation in Anthropology, I looked, like many, for ways to financially support this period of writing and defense while also grappling with an essential question-- what do I want to do with this degree? The Ph.D. process had jaded me to the path of university professorship, to seemingly spending months and/or years writing for closed-door publications in highly-rated journals or teaching introductory classes to undergrad students, disinterestedly scrolling through their laptops. This dilemma led me to pursue a one-year (at the time) position at an independent school on NYC’s Upper West Side teaching high school social studies. Almost unintentionally, my training in anthropology bled into the topics we explored and the pedagogies employed. And, in a joyous way, I found students ready for and energized by conversions on meaning-making, personhood, community construction, and processes of (de)humanization. It excited me about the possibilities, of a different approach to secondary school curricula, one that integrated or even focused on anthropological thought and method, earlier.

With a new vision, I finished the dissertation and turned an eye to full-time teaching at the secondary level. I was often challenged, however, by interview panels wondering why an anthropologist made sense teaching in a history department. And why someone with such a degree would want to teach high school? Wouldn’t I rather teach at the college level? Though well-intentioned (heck, I asked some of the same questions in the years prior), these questions assumed or implied a number of things-- that anthropology and history are not related (enough) to allow for instructional cross-over, that high school-level teaching is a waste for someone with doctoral-level knowledge, and that, perhaps, high school-aged students are not fully prepared for such conversations. Plenty of research, in anthropology and education more generally, has analyzed the roots of these feelings, looking into questions such as-- what do we prioritize as “core” curriculum, which schools have the funding to teach “elective” subjects like anthropology, are subjects like history taught with self-reflexivity and research methods in mind, to what standards of subject-based knowledge are teachers held, how do we differentially value the positions of educators, and how ready do we assume students are to engage with certain topics? My experiences, however, told me that 9th-12th graders are hungry for these topics. And, happily, in the end, it was my original school, the one where I first came to this epiphany, that agreed. They took me on, asking me to integrate this anthropological approach not only into the 9th-grade “Ancient World History” curriculum but also into the design of several, multi-grade electives including “Introduction to Anthropology.” 

Only about a six-week course, fitting into one of the school’s marking periods, “Introduction to Anthropology” aims to do what its title suggests-- introduce high school students to the “big” questions of the field’s four, main subfields through as many hands-on experiences as possible. After a foundational week debating anthropology’s history and some of its theoretical frameworks, we begin two weeks of bio-physical anthropology. Here, students work to identify hominid crania through evolutionary paleoanthropology, make their own lithic tools through a flintknapping lab, examine comparative primatology, and ask questions about medicine and health by running through various case studies-- i.e. of “medical” vs. holy water HIV treatments in Ethiopia, female/male circumcision vs. narratives of “mutilation,” and coca leaf-use in the highland Andes. They interrogate the dangers of confirmation bias through the historic “Piltdown Man” case while discussing the nuanced differences between Samuel G. Morton’s craniometry and Franz Boas’s “preservationism,” as both used grave robbing to prove their arguably at-odds beliefs in species’ superiority and cultural equality. From here, we move on to our next sub-field, archaeology, where students engage in mock excavations using virtual apps or gridded, plastic containers prefilled with stratigraphic findings. To recreate lab work, they collaborate to catalog findings, analyze dendrochronology samples, and complete pottery reconstructions. Finally, we end the marking period with a couple of weeks on linguistic and socio-cultural anthropology, engaging with instances of codeswitching/mixing, semiotics, and linguistic preservation while reading a select ethnography. This past year, we examined the intersections of food anthropology, urban studies, and critical race theory by reading excerpts of Dr. Ashanté M. Reese’s Black Food Geographies

Ethnography serves as a thread throughout the course, culminating in a final research-based project. During our years dealing with remote or hybrid learning in 2020-21, students chose research questions rooted in medical anthropology and the COVID-19 pandemic. They explored topics ranging from mask-wearing decisions to adolescent experiences of Zoom learning. They conducted interviews, created surveys, and (when possible), tried out participant observation. And while their findings proved interesting, it was the experience of doing anthropology that had staying power. More recently, given our school’s proximity to countless museums in NYC-- from the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) to the Metropolitan Museum (Met) and the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI)-- we’ve focused on museum anthropology and indigenous studies. Using works like Amy Lonetree’s (2012) Decolonizing Museums and Porter Swentzell’s “Museums and Beans” alongside museum trips (in-person and virtual), students examine the pros and cons, the hows and whys, behind displaying human cultures in such institutions. Debates emerge around research ethics and “artifact” acquisition, display design, land rights, funding, representation, ownership, and repatriation. In the end, students have proposed new floorplan layouts and collection interpretations, composed letters to curatorial boards calling for change, and engaged in activism. 

Though the course is a whirlwind of sorts, students note how meaningful even brushing the surface of each subfield is, not only to understanding the field of anthropology but human society at large and their own places within it. Whether they become anthropologists or not, students reflect on the deeper lessons the discipline offers-- respect for difference, the need for ethical and self-reflexive research, and the importance of asking questions to seek understanding and not pursue immediate judgment. In recent years, students have even asked for the creation of a new “Anthropology 2” course to continue their journey; and alums have noted how their experiences taking anthropology in high school led them to take similar courses in college. They are hungry for anthropology. 

So, this is a call to teach anthropology, earlier. While there are educators out there already doing the work, to do so in a more wide-ranging way, changes are necessary-- we need to encourage more anthropologists to enter secondary education, encourage schools and local boards to allocate funding to support such coursework, encourage professional development that helps integrate anthropological thought into already-existing curricula, and empower students to take the lead and seek out opportunities. 


Video length: 4 minutes, 5 seconds
Filming and editing: Michelle Kiefer (Director of Communications, Calhoun)