Posts tagged ‘livelihoods’

December 7, 2012

Para-Academics

by johnmccreery

The following remarks were addressed to anthropologists on the Open Anthropology Cooperative. They may be of some value to students in other fields.

Erin asks, “What if there were something like life-long learning in anthropology?”

Sitting on top of our kitchen counter is a book, Haruo Shirane (1998) Traces of Dreams: Landscape, Cultural Memory, and the Poetry of Bashô. Shirane was a friend of my wife in graduate school at Yale. I pick the book up, start browsing through the introduction and come across the following passage,

The seventeenth century witnessed not only a dramatic rise in the standard of living for almost all levels of society but a striking change in the nature of cultural production and consumption. In the medieval period, provincial military lords (daimyô) were able to learn about the Heian classics from traveling renga (classical linked verse) masters such as Sôgi (1421-1502), but the acquisition of classical texts was limited to a relatively small circle of poet-priests, powerful warriors, and aristocrats, who were deeply rooted in the traditional culture of Kyoto. A monopoly—epitomized by the Kokin denju, the secret teachings of the Kokinshû—had been established over the study of classical texts, the study of which was often passed on through carefully controlled lineages, in one-to-one transmissions to the elected few. In the seventeenth century, by contrast, anyone who could afford to pay for lessons could receive instructions from “town teachers” (machi shisô) in any one of many arts or fields of learning. The transmission of learning was not dependent, as it had been in the medieval period, on the authority of poetry families or the patronage of large institutions such as Buddhist temples or powerful military lords.

I am reminded that, in Japan today, there exists alongside the universities a system of “culture centers.” Operated mostly by newspapers and department stores, they play a role analogous to that of the “town teachers” mentioned by Shirane, offering lifelong learning classes to housewives and retirees on a vast range of subjects from homely cooking skills to classical Japanese literature and urban planning.

This reflection reminds me of other worlds of private education in the West, piano and other music teachers and operators of craft shops who offer classes in knitting, crocheting or macrame, operating in effect as one-teacher culture centers with a limited range of offerings. My mind spins on, where was it that I saw a reference to philosophy cafes? A Google search turns up 5,700,000 hits. The first, from Wikipedia, says,

Café philosophique (“cafe-philo”) is a grassroots forum for philosophical discussion, founded by philosopher Marc Sautet (1947–1998) in Paris, France, on December 13, 1992.[1]
There were about 100 “cafés-philos” operating throughout France and some 150 cafés-philos internationally at the time of Sautet’s death in 1998.[2][3]

The subjects discussed at the cafes had a range that varied from the Santa Claus myth to truth to beauty to sex to death. They posed such questions as What is a fact? and Is hope a violent thing? Sautet made the discussions seem fun and exciting. The concept was to bring people together in a public friendly forum where they could discuss ideas. A cafe tended to have this type of atmosphere where people were relaxed drinking coffee and carrying on conversations. This concept ultimately developed into Café Philosophique that he founded.[4]

Thousands of participants in philosophy cafes worldwide have adopted Sautet’s idea as a way to enhance their thinking. Ideas are thrown out with concern for accuracy and philosophical rigor. The concepts discussed were in the spirit of tolerance and openness. The idea of Sautet’s philosophy cafes have spread around the world. The concept that started in France and subsequently entered England, Germany, Belgium, Austria, Switzerland, and eventually throughout Europe is now in the United States, Canada, South America, Greece, Australia and even Japan.[2] Due to this success, the French president Jacques Chirac sent a founding member on a good will mission to Latin America to introduce the concept there.[3]
A common element in these, I will call them “para-academic,” institutions is their social dimension. On any given subject, those who come to learn could find more brilliant lectures and better illustrated demonstrations on-line via Coursera, iTunes U, etc. What they still can’t find is social opportunities, real-world places to meet people who share similar interests, in settings where a shared hobby can lead to drinks, dinner, or (we gracefully draw the curtain) other forms of social activity.

Is it possible to imagine at least a few entrepreneurial anthropologists living comfortably, even prospering, by pursuing this line? Just had dinner last night with an American friend living in Japan who has spun teaching English to dentists into organizing tours to international medical conferences and has just founded a company to take advantage of what she has learned and the contacts she has made to organize other, now I will call them “learning-socializing” events, related to politics and spirituality, topics in which she has strong personal interests. Not an anthropologist (originally and still, in another of her many roles, a professional jazz pianist), but perhaps a model that anthropologists stuck with no jobs or crap jobs in today’s academic world might want to consider.