Love, Duty, and Marriage in a Classic Thai Novel

Originally published here at in October 2011.

Behind the pAINTING

In summer 2011, I had the pleasure of co-teaching a Sociology/English class for American students in Thailand.  One of the real pleasures was using novels to illustrate sociological principles.  It was kind of like profession (sociology) meets hobby (reading novels).  I hope that the students liked it—I certainly did, and this blog is about what was my favorite Thai novel of the summer, Behind the Painting.  It proved to be ideal for discussing a wide range of subjects stretching across both sociology and literature, particularly the meaning of duty and love in structuring Thai and American society.

Behind the Painting by Siburapha is a classic Thai romance novel used to teach literature in Thai high schools.  The first half of the book was published in 1937-1938 as a serial in the newspaper Prachachat, and the entire book later in 1938.  The English translation by David Smyth was completed in 1995, and published by Silkworm books in 2000.  The story drips with references to the Thai aristocracy; indeed, the lead female character in the story, as well as her husband, are always referred to by their aristocratic titles in Smyth’s translation.

Set in the 1930s Japan, Behind the Painting is about a young Thai student Napporn and his relationship one summer with the newly-wed wife of a family friend.  Napporn at the time the main story is set has been in Japan already for three years, seeking entrance to the upper class status that a foreign university education provides ambitious Thai.  As with all well-born Thai, Napporn and his father consider such study abroad as a means to pull their impoverished country into modernity, and an entrance to the Thai ruling class.  Still, Napporn’s father knew that there was risk to such a trip; in preparing Napporn for his long trip abroad—it will last eight years—so Napporn was betrothed to a woman chosen by his father, to preclude Napporn seeking out a Japanese wife.  Completing the setting for the novel, are two visitors from Thailand who arrive in the summer of Napporn’s third year in Japan.  They are a widower with the title Chao Khun Atikanbodi (roughly Lord University Dean), who Napporn knew previously in Thailand, and his new wife Mom Rachawong Kirati (roughly “Lady Kirati”).  They are in Japan to spend the summer and become better acquainted following their marriage.  At 22, the commoner Napporn is a youthful host for the 35 year old Kirati, and the 50 year old Khun Chao.

Both Khun Chao and Mom Rachawong Karati are educated members of the Thai aristocracy, and are quickly swept into the swirl of social events in pre-World War II Japan.  What this means for Chao Khun is activities among his peers at men’s clubs, embassies, and the world of Thai and Japanese elite.  For his well-educated wife Mom Rachawong Kirati, it means pursuing her aristocratic passion for painting, and frequently being left in the company of the young student courtier, Napporn.  The two of them share an enthusiasm for the world of art, literature, public parks, nature, and intellectual life.  It is in this context that despite the differences in marital status and age, and even social status, the two find each other to be kindred spirits.  In wide-ranging discussions, they explore the beauty of the Japanese country-side and architecture.  More dangerously, the explore definitions of duty, loyalty, marriage, and love.  In the process of these dialogues, a picture of the elegant Mom Rachawong Kirati’s life as the idealized woman of the Thai nobility emerges.  This creates an increasingly personal dilemma for the now lovelorn Napporn who wrestles with the implications of being in love with a married woman, while he himself is engaged to his father’s choice.  In contrast, Mom Ratchawong Kirati, the question about the ideal of the loyalty to duty and class, or one rooted in the longing for the union between love and marriage is never in doubt.  Painfully for her the answer is clear: duty comes first.

How Mom Rachawong Kirati and Napporn both reach this conclusion is the heart of the book, as the tension between romantic love, marriage, and duty to class and family is explored.  In developing this point, there is actually much to be demonstrated for the western student who reflexively assumes that love and marriage are inextricably tied together, and trump broader loyalties to family and class.  They do not, as Mom Ratchawong Kirati, and even Napporn, demonstrate with their own arranged marriages.  Behind the Painting makes the point well that marriage is about duty, and preservation of society as much as love.  Love comes first only for the most fortunate—and the most craven.

Mom Rachawong Kiratis’s Marriage

Mom Ratchawong Kirati was one of three daughters raised by a father who was a royal administrator during the days of absolute rule in Siam.  Aristocratic girls in that day were raised in a protected environment, with the expectation that they would find a suitably aristocratic husband, who would both enhance the status of their family and hopefully also be a love match for the daughter.  It was a cloistered world, or as Mom Ratchawong Kirati describes the situation:

Before the change of government [in 1932], the aristocracy lived in a world of its own….When I finished school my father drew me into that world with him and forbade me to associate with people beyond it….I continued my studies with an elderly foreign governess…you may imagine the sort of conversation to which I was exposed…The virtues of a lady… the proper conduct of a household.  I had McCall’s and Vogue magazines to read, from which I learned to preserve my beauty and care for it well…something like caring for a hydrangea in a vase…We are born to decorate the world and to pander to it.  I do not say this is our only responsibility, but you cannot deny its importance.  Pp. 123-125

But Mom Rachawong Kirati’s success as a “hydrangea in a vase” was bittersweet; her cultivated beauty attracted wide notice, but no eligible man stepped forward to ask her father for her hand.  Thus, despite younger sisters finding husbands who both loved them, and met the approval of the families, she remained in her father’s household virtuous, lonely, and unloved.  Finally, at age 34, her father suggests that she marry his good friend Khun Chao who was recently widowed, even though he was almost 50 years old.  As she notes Khun Chao was a good man, but regretfully not one whom she can love; any hope that she can have anything but a dutiful but loveless marriage is sacrificed to the expedience he provides.  So she dutifully enters into matrimony, and the two embark on the trip to Japan where she meets Napporn.

Oddly the age difference between the 35 year old Kirati and 22 year old Napporn is similar to that between that of Kirati and her husband.  Nevertheless, the relationship becomes very different.  It is through the words of Napporn that we learn how he falls deeply in love with Mom Ratchawong Kirati, while knowing full-well that her duties are first to her husband, and his own to his family and his fiancé in Thailand.  This is the context as the friendship between the two blossoms. She confesses to him that she is in a marriage that is unlikely to develop a true love due to the difference in age; she even confesses that Napporn is her best friend.  And in the process Napporn becomes infatuated with her, and in a private space at the park at Mitake, he steals a passionate embrace and kiss from the older woman, while confessing his love to her. He pleads with her that she reciprocate his love, but she avoids the question.  Mom Ratchawong Kirati, despite Napporn’s entreaties, refuses to confess that she too loves the forbidden Napporn and entreats him to look at her as an older sister.

The Healing Effects of Time and Duty

Behind the Painting is particularly effective in expressing the heartbreak of such youthful love on Napporn, a conviction quickly described by in a dialog between the two (p. 132):

Kirati: “….I shall consider you a friend for life”

Napporn protests “But I shall gone on loving you, all of my life.”

Kirati: That is your choice, of course; but in time, you will renounce that right, and you will do it of our own accord.

Napporn: I know otherwise

Kirati: The very young have such faith in themselves; I congratulate you on that enviable faith, Napporn.

Within days of her departure, Napporn writes Mom Rachawong Kirati two long love letters, which she receives after her return to Bangkok.  In her response Mom Rachawong Kirati again protests that there relationship be that of an older sister and younger brother, a common and appropriate relationship in Thai society.  And her protestations are successful—Napporn’s letters from Japan to Thailand become less frequent, and eventually are only sent at the rate of about three per year. Napporn’s love does indeed wane, as indeed Mom Ratchawong Kirati predicted.  This slow-down even continues after the death Chao Khun two years later, an event that leads the widowed Mom Rachawong Kirati to withdraw from society, and become a recluse in an aristocratic Bangkok neighborhood.

But to his surprise, and despite Napporn’s loss of interest, Mom Ratchawong Kirati is among the small group greeting Napporn at the quay upon his return from Japan at age 28, as indeed is his father, and a strange woman he doesn’t even recognize as his long-waiting fiancé.  Thus, the relationship between Napporn and Mom Ratchawong Kirati is re-established as she wished as that between an older sister and younger brother; for Napporn at least, the infatuation of his youth died as indeed she predicted it would.  His father’s arrangement for Napporn’s wedding proceeds, and Mom Ratchawong Kirati is invited; it is only at the last minute that she cannot attend due to ill-health.

Thus as a married man, Napporn strives to create a loving relationship with his new wife.  But then unexpectedly, Mom Ratchawong Kirati calls her old friend Napporn to her bed where she presents him with a painting—of that glen in Mitake where he so passionately kissed her.  Near death she mysteriously explains: “Your love was born there and it died there, but loves thrives in another body—one that is ruined and soon will be no more.”  And indeed, Napporn was called to her deathbed seven days later where, unable to speak, she scrawls on a piece of paper tragic words that are central to Thai romantic literature “Though I die with no one to love me, still my heart is full…for I die loving someone.”

Love, Marriage, and Duty in Behind the Painting

Mom Ratchawong Kirati’s story is a well-known in Thai literature, Thai film, and is required reading in schools.  It is important because indeed, Thai society often wrestles with the tension between familial duty, and matters of the heart.  In describing this tension, it is apparent that the conservative nature of Thai society is not simply the result of pseudo-Victorian sensibilities that the Thai aristocracy brought back from Europe (or Japan).

An alternative interpretation is that such literature is also about the virtue found in denial of self, and duty to a broader social honor.  Notably such themes are central to the doctrines of Theravada Buddhism which then, as now, permeate Thai society.

Thus, as much as being about love lost, Behind the Painting is also about duty fulfilled—albeit at a steep cost in terms of the immediate happiness of Napporn and Mom Rachawong Kirati.  Or as Mom Ratchawong Kirati beseeches Napporn “Napporn, I beg you to believe that you must confront reality and only reality; let it be your judge and your guide in life.  Idealism is far more attractive—but believe me, it is of little worth in practice.”  Napporn’s response is not that of the scorned, but of one who believes in the wisdom of such self-denial.  Napporn responds in a fashion which seems, ironically quite modern in the context of the changed status of women, and not as a scorned lover: “I realized that I was looking into the eyes of a woman so intelligent and so wise that I could not begin to follow her.  Such a woman should have been a great figure in history, not merely Khunying Kirati.”


Siburapha (1938/2000).  Behind the Painting, and Other Stories, translated from the Thai and introduced by David Smyth. Silkworm Books: Chiangmai.




Something Good to Read from Savage Minds

I am going to be out-of-town working for a few days so I’ve scheduled some posts for the week that we think you should read, in case you missed ‘em when they were here before. I’ll be back online Friday.

The folk at Savage Minds (one of our favorites) are doing a spring Writer’s Workshop series over on their blog and we wanted to let you know about it here, because we love writers and we love reading here at

Slow Reading is about the art of writing and its relationship to reading, itself something Lambek describes as a “lost art” (I concur!). I’ve been a lifelong reader, former literacy tutor, bookstore clerk, and soc prof I see what he means when he says that reading is “limited to that privileged small percent at the top end of the bimodal distribution.” And we want everyone to read, especially students (we all know this is why they tend to write poorly). Lambek also mentions Marilynne Robinson, one of my favorite writers and one of the greats. But will students read her, will they read a whole book?

My husband Larry and I had coffee with my co-editor Tony and his wife Dagmar yesterday and we talked about this very thing. How do you get students to read? Will they read a whole book? I said ‘yes’ but there was healthy skepticism among us, students may not like to read but who does these days? What do you think? Have any tricks up your sleeve that you’d like to share? Give Lambek’s piece a read and tell us what you know and what you think in the comments.

5 tips for helping students find a book
5 tips for helping students find a book (as seen on twitter)

A Season of Homicides

Excerpted from A Season of Homicides: The Murder of Marc Thompson”  published December 15, 2014 in the Synthesis


Mountain House and Brush Creek are part of an unincorporated area 25 miles or so east of Oroville, California. They are tiny burgs off the old Oroville-Quincy Highway, on the way to Buck’s Lake Wilderness, Quincy, and countless outdoor opportunities in Plumas County. These areas, steeped in mining and logging history, are rural and quiet, known for marijuana grows and conservative politics. It is a lonely wooded place. But on September 3, 2014, a burning car was found there. The car was a Ford, described as either gold or tan, and it was registered to Marc Thompson of Oroville. Marc was my student, friend, and was featured in a movie I helped make that was directed by Lee Mun Wah titled If These Halls Could Talk. But for seven days, he was simply missing—and possibly the body that was found in a burning car.

Cal Fire extinguished the fire by 7:30 pm, and at the time, the local sheriff only knew that it was Marc’s car with a body inside. They were also aware that the fire was surrounded by dry grass at the end of a hot, late-summer day. Marc wasn’t “circumstantially identified” as the body in the car for a week, not until a September 10th press release from the Butte County Sheriff’s Office (BCSO). It took until early October for the coroner’s office to confirm through DNA testing that it was him.

I didn’t know about the car fire that night. I found out that something was wrong only on September 6th, three days after the body in his burning car was found. I woke up from a Saturday afternoon nap and hopped on Facebook to post a video clip from the movieThank You for Smoking on Marc’s wall. My husband Larry and I watched it the week before and I knew that it was one of Marc’s favorite movies. When I got to his Facebook page I saw that one of his sisters posted this:

From April Nicole-Drakes, September 6, 2014
Friends of Marc Thompson please keep your eyes and ears open!! Marc has been missing for days & no one seems to know anything. Chico & Oroville California be alert! If you know anything please inform me or the police! Please read!!!!!!!

…Despite the peculiar circumstances, there are still no leads in the investigation three months later, and I’m afraid there won’t be unless we keep Marc’s name and story in the press so that it stays part of the “running conversation.” This sociological idea suggests that it’s valuable to keep the public excited and interested in the case through everyday conversation such as gossip, street talk, community organizing, and brief articles in local newspapers like you might have read in the Chico Enterprise Record and here in theSynthesis. Keeping a “running conversation” going is essential in cases like Marc’s when the victim is young and Black, a person who was seen and then dead in a short span of hours.

Click here to read more.

***Please Contact Butte County Sheriff investigators Jason Hail or Chris D’Amato if you have any information about Marc Thompson: 530-538-7671.

Kennewick Man Sighted Buying Groceries in Virginia

groceries.jpgby Cynthia van Gilder

Most everyone in the anthropological community is familiar with the controversial human skeletal find known as Kennewick Man. Discovered in 1996 by some hikers on the Columbia River, Washington, Kennewick Man was initially identified as a 19th century Euro-American settler, but closer inspection revealed a projectile point embedded in his pelvis that was common about 9,000 years ago, a date that radiocarbon dating later confirmed. In short, Kennewick Man sparked an epic controversy around two primary topics: 1) who should have legal stewardship of the remains; and 2) what was “Kenne’s” race.

Those interested in reviewing the sensational circumstances surrounding Kenne’s eventual disposition (these included the mysterious dumping of many tons of rock on the original location of the find by the Army Corps of Engineers, and a multi-year law suit in which scientists won the right to study the skeleton), will find many sources on- and off-line.

kennewick.jpgEqually intense was the controversy surrounding the investigating archaeologist’s characterization of the skeleton’s features as “caucasoid” – a word that the media immediately equated with caucasian – rather than a set of metric traits characterizing a variety of world populations including the indigenous Ainu of Japan. A reconstruction of Kenne’s face was widely circulated in which he bore a striking resemblance to Jean-Luc Picard, Captain of the Starship Enterprise on Star Trek: The Next Generation, a character played by British actor Patrick Stewart.

The publication of this image in association with the very early date of 9000 BC, led to rampant speculation in the public media: had Europeans been the earliest settlers of the North American continent? And so, in the blink of an eye, the 19th century fantasy of a lost race of White Americans was revived, although nobody can say the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints looked surprised.

This was the Kennewick Controversy that I was teaching in Spring of 2006 to my class on Native American cultures when in April a shocking event occurred: Time magazine published an opulent cover portrait of Kenne in which he looked decidedly mongoloid, his features invoking those of modern Arctic peoples. How could this be, the class demanded to know? We scoured the magazine article for clues. Who had authorized this new reconstruction? The students demanded answers.

There was no mention of the cover image in the article. There was no acknowledgment of how very much this representation diverged from previously published images. Encouraged by the students, and now personally quite intrigued, I wrote to the scientists quoted in the article asking if they had authorized Kenne’s new face. I received no response. I wrote to Time asking where they had gotten the cover image and they referred me to the tiny artist’s credit on the inside of the cover: Kam Mak.

Two days and many Google inquiries later, I had discovered that Kam Mak had a part time academic appointment at an arts college in New York City and had left my home phone number with the department assistant, saying I was an anthropologist eager to discuss his recent cover art for Time. When I came home from teaching the next day, there was a message on my answering machine, “Hello, this is Kam Mak. I am delighted in your interest. Please phone me at my home in Virginia.”

Kam Mak, I discovered, is a charming and thoughtful man with a gift for painting vibrant images that touch the soul. Born in Hong Kong, but raised primarily in New York, he has illustrated the covers of many young adult novels and has written and illustrated a beautiful children’s book about his childhood in Chinatown. We had much to talk about immediately, as he was working on a project depicting food in Chinese markets and I had just finished teaching a class on food and ethnicity that had included a week stay in Honolulu to explore ethnic cuisine there.

I turned the conversation to Kenne, however, and learned the following: 1) Time had not requested a particular image; 2) they had contacted him based on his having done a portrait for them several years earlier with which they were pleased; 3) they had sent him a handful of articles about the skeleton, so he did know something about the controversies. So, how, I pressed, had he decided on Kenne’s features? Mr. Mak’s response was unexpected and yet made a delightful sense: he had used his own face!

Yes, and Mr. Mak was kind enough to send me a digital photo of himself and there it was – the high cheekbones, the set of his jaw and lips, even the thoughtful expression in the eyes – our new Kennewick Man was Kam Mak – “with a little Eskimo thrown in” – as he described it to me.

The students were initially horrified, after all I had spent the semester talking about how significant images of Native Americans were to their public perception – from the cigar Indians to contemporary sports mascots. I talked them down, however, and soon they saw the humor in the situation and appreciated the humanity of Kam Mak’s vision of Kenne not as a symbol or stereotype, but a real man, like himself.

My choice for best book on Kennewick Man and why he caused such a fuss: Thomas, David Hurst. Skull Wars: Kennewick Man, Archaeology, and the Battle for Native American Identity New York: Basic Books, 2000. ISBN 0-465-09224-1

Originally published here at in August 2007.

Where Have You Gone Robert Redford?

I lived in Thailand as a young Peace Corps Volunteer in the early 1980s.  To learn Thai, I would go into small local restaurants where I would sit at a table.   As a lone single foreigner, my presence raised curiosity of the people working at the restaurants, or other patrons.  Oftentimes is was a 30 or 40 year old woman who owned the stall, and made their living selling bowls of noodle soup.  Quite often there were also  girls in their late teens, or early twenties also working there, i.e. my age at the time.  I learned much of my Thai in such situations, often in the context of a conversation that went something like this:

Me:  Could I please have a bowl of noodle soup?

Them: You mean you even speak Thai!!!

Me: (modestly) Yes, yes, a little bit.

Them: You speak Thai really really well!  Where are you from?

Me: I’m from America.

Them: Ooh that’s interesting.  We see American movies.  Did you know you look just like a movie star????  (accompanied with teenage tittering).

Me (modestly):  Well, yes, I’ve heard that before (i.e. the previous time I sat down at a restaurant like this).

Them:  You have golden colored hair, just like Robert Redford!!! (more teenage tittering).

Me (with more humility):  Well yes, I guess so….

Some form of this conversation took place probably a couple hundred times during my three years in Thailand in the early 1980s.  In fact, it took place with most of the Peace Corps guys who had long noses, and hair that wasn’t’ black, including the bald ones.  It was the starter for a great deal of conversation, fun, and flirtatiousness.  Not to mention, it was the context for much of the Thai language we eventually learned.

Anyway, I returned to Thailand in June 2011 with hopes of reliving the glory of thirty years ago. I even brought along my wife of 24 years to show it how it was done—and how lucky she is to have married a guy who looks just like Robert Redford.

First restaurant:

Me: Could I have a bowl of noodle soup?

Them:  Sure.  Do you want something to drink with that?

Me:  Yes….water maybe?

Them:  It seems you speak a little Thai!

Me (hopefully):  Yes, yes….

Them:  Where did you learn Thai?

Me:  In the Peace Corps, over thirty years ago.

Them:  Why were you so stupid to leave Thailand?  Couldn’t you see that this is the nicest country in the world???

Me:  Um yeah.  Do you remember Robert Redford?

Them:  No, who’s that?

The real sad part is that it was no longer the tittering teenagers and twenty-somethings asking me these questions.  They still sit conspiculously in front of the noodle stand, but seem focused on others, and no longer strike up conversations with me.  Rather it is 50 year old ladies who smile as much the teenagers used to (wait a minute—I guess they were those teenagers), but the tittering is gone.  For that matter, so is the flirtatiousness.  I guess that the good news is that the noodle soup still tastes great.

Originally published here at in July 2011

Leaky First Graders, Defiant Teenagers, Jocks, and Nerds

A review of my 2012 book Schooling, Childhood, and Bureaucracy: Bureaucratizing the Child was just published in Contemporary Sociology. The book review was generally pretty nice—so I recommend people read it (sorry to non-university people, it’s mostly behind a paywall). The reviewer highlighted Chapter 4 which is about child development in the context of standardized school grades as being particularly noteworthy. Here is a brief extract from that chapter.  You can read a pre-publication version of Chapter 1 here.


Leaky First Graders, Defiant Teenagers, Jocks, and Nerds

 Standardizing Childhood and Normative

Childhood Development


There are formal and informal curricula in schools. The formal curriculum is typically spelled out in the form of standards, goals, objectives, rules, laws, and other bureaucratic markers that Durkheim described as pedagogy. But the pedagogy also includes an implicit hidden curriculum as well. The hidden curriculum is focused on reproducing society, including the status quo with its preexisting power relations as a coherent system in which citizens generate a faith in its basic moral orientations.


This includes what Bourdieu called practice and habitus, and it is discussed in some of the short-hand terms described in this chapter, like leaky first graders, defiant teenagers, jocks, and nerds….


Normative Child Development

The standardized school curriculum has embedded in it implicit assumptions about what a normative childhood will be. Rooted in it are moral assumptions about social development, learning capacity, and even brain development. Within this moral calculation, particular types of social relationships, learning, and brain change are regarded as age appropriate and normal, while the exceptions are defined as abnormal or even deviant. But this is always a contested realm, as the habitus of past identities and “group position” remembered by the powerful adults who create the schools. For this reason “child development” is always defined relative to a broader cultural standard. These are all embedded in what Durkheim called values and morality.


A useful way to ask about this is to focus on the basis for normative behavior. Where do ideas about what is normative come from? Look inside an adult, and the socialization that defined them as a child: perhaps a leaky first grader, cute third grader, cliquish middle schooler, or defiant hedonistic teenager remain. These preexisting categories are waiting in the habitus of the culture to be passed on to the next generation as surely as literacy, numeracy, and patriotism. Politicians and school administrators, not scientists, are charged with identifying what is regarded as normal child development and, by implication, what is abnormal. The consensus they develop is the basis for the planned scientific curriculum, which is age-graded so it can be adapted to the goals of the school. Ultimately it is a sociocultural assertion about what is normal, i. e., the “One Best System of Childhood” (see Fuller 2007, xi–xiii). This in turn is embedded in a school bureaucracy in various forms including calculable test scores, rationalized rules, and law.


In the rationalized United States, this resulted in typologies that tie specific ages to normative developmental skills. Underpinning this are patterned social and physiological changes, with which any curriculum—explicit or hidden—must negotiate. In turn are created cultural expectations that are embedded in the ostensibly scientific curricula, school rules, and education policies. Thus created is a paradox in how schools and childhood are administered. Bureaucracies assume predictability and constancy in human behavior because such an assumption is well suited to bureaucratic action and is rooted in behavioristic expectations. In this context, incentives and sanctions are so readily adaptable to bureaucratic planning. Bureaucratic planning embedded in such behaviorism happens even though the most modern insights of physiology, learning theory, psychology, and sociology indicate that human development cognition, inequality, etc. are more central to understanding human behavior than behaviorism. Thus the models that one is likely to learn in a university class based on “the latest research,” are different than the ones assumed by a school principal trying to maneuver a school of dozens of teachers, and hundreds (or thousands) of students through the days of the school year….


Goldstein et al (1996, 9) describe why children are different from adults in their book The Best Interests of the Child: The Least Detrimental Alternative :


1) Unlike adults, children change constantly, from one stage of growth to another. They change with regard to their understanding of events, their tolerance for frustration, and their needs for and demands on parents care for support, stimulation, guidance and restraint . . .


2) Unlike adults, who measure the passing of time by clock and calendar, children have their own built-in time sense, based on the urgency of their instinctual and emotional needs, and on the limits of their cognitive capacities . . .


3) Unlike adults, young children experience events as happening solely with reference to their own persons . . .


4) Unlike adults, children are governed in much of their functioning by the irrational part of their minds—their primitive wishes and impulses . . .


5) Unlike adults, children have no psychological conception of the bloodtie relationships until quite late in their development . . . What matters to them is the pattern of day-to-day interchanges with adults who take care of them . . .


(Slightly edited version of pp. 81-83 Schooling, Bureaucracy and Childhood: Bureaucratizing the Child by Tony Waters, 2012.  And a brief note to fans of Herbert Blumer: Yes, the mention of “group position” is a reference to Blumer’s 1958 article, “Race Prejudice as a Sense of Group Position.”)



Mission Statements: Elite Harvard, Middle-Class Chico, and Working-Class Butte College

Schooling Childhood Cover

Education is an inherent paradox. At its most explicit, it assumes that students are trained for a fair, meritocratic, and competitive labor market in which learning is valued without reference to who they are or their social connections. This is why fair markets are “anonymous”….

But schools do not operate in anonymous markets. Schools emphasizing the visible honors of academic achievement, teacher-student relationships, are often the opposite. The tensions between the utility of skills in an anonymous labor market while monopolizing the distribution of visible status honors in the broader community is at the heart of the educational enterprise (see Weber 1920/2010).

As anyone who has ever perused US News and World Reports college rankings issue knows, raw anonymous human capital is not the only thing peddled at elite colleges—so are “connections,” status, and habitus of elites. Ross Douthat [currently an influential New York Times columnist], in fact addressed this tension—that between visible honors and the anonymous labor market in which productivity is the measure—at Harvard University. He concluded that any success he would have in the future was related to connections as much as anything else:


I understood the secret of Harvard’s success—which is that it doesn’t end with college, that it still exists out in the wider world, and that all of my adult life, all the people I would know, the jobs I might have, and the worlds I would conquer, would be nothing more than an extension of my four years in Cambridge . . . Harvard had made me to be elite and connected, and successful, to be inside, you might say . . .(Douthat 2005, 250).


[For Douthat, being inside included an internship at the National Review, and a trip on William F. Buckley’s boat where they went skinny dipping together, a rite of male bonding]  In other words, education at Harvard is not simply about the creation of skills, brain power, and the wisdom as sorted out in an anonymous meritocracy; it is, as Bourdieu wrote, also about the dominant preserving the dominant. Elites depend on institutions like Harvard to create the habits and symbols with which they can recognize each other. These symbols determine which worlds can be conquered. The Harvard pin is ultimately about inclusion for insiders who share and recognize a style of life, and exclude the rest of us.

And such habits echo downward in the stratification system. Just like the Harvard pin, the symbols, habits, and styles of life of working and middle class lives described in Annette Lareau’s book Unequal Childhoods:


Class, Race, and Social Life reproduce social class among middle- and working-class children in Pennsylvania. The difference is that the elite set the standards that reflect the overall shape of the status pyramid. Harvard sets the tone for the game; what is valued at the top reflects downward, shaping the habitus of those lower down and what they think, say, and do.


Mission Statements: Elite, Middle Class, and Working Class

Despite Ross Douthat’s bluntness about understanding ”the secret of success” being rooted in Harvard’s role in sorting people, there is nothing about elite exclusivity in the mission statement of Harvard College. Instead qualities like productive cooperation, full participation, and even the liberation of students (or at least Harvard’s students) is emphasized, even as they try to sneak in a statement about “self-reliance.” In fact the entire subject is missing of elites, buried in abstract statements about the centrality of advancement, encouragement, and rejoicing about responsibility:


The Mission of Harvard College

Harvard College adheres to the purposes for which the Charter of 1650 was granted: “The advancement of all good literature, arts, and sciences; the advancement and education of youth in all manner of good literature, arts, and sciences; and all other necessary provisions that may conduce to the education of the . . . youth of this country. . . .” In brief: Harvard strives to create knowledge, to open the minds of students to that knowledge, and to enable students to take best advantage of their educational opportunities. To these ends, the College encourages students to respect ideas and their free expression, and to rejoice in discovery and in critical thought; to pursue excellence in a spirit of productive cooperation; and to assume responsibility for the consequences of personal actions. Harvard seeks to to remove restraints on students’ full participation, so that individuals may explore their capabilities and interests and may develop their full intellectual and human potential. Education at Harvard should liberate students to explore, to create, to challenge, and to lead. The support the College provides to students is a foundation upon which self-reliance and habits of lifelong learning are built: Harvard expects that the scholarship and collegiality it fosters in its students will lead them in their later lives to advance knowledge, to promote understanding, and to serve society. (http://www.


Harvard’s latent mission is very clearly an elite one, untethered to the pragmatic utilitarian goals of a more anonymous marketplace as, say, the community college system, where the message is about “skills,” and not “responsibility.”


Butte College provides quality education, services, and workforce training to students who aspire to become productive members of a diverse, sustainable, and global society. We prepare our students for life-long learning through the mastery of basic skills, the achievement of degrees and certifications, and the pursuit of career and transfer pathways.


Or at the middle class Chico State where I teach, just down the road from working class Butte College, where a middle ground is sought in which graduates will both assume responsibility and also be “useful”:


California State University, Chico is a comprehensive university principally serving Northern California, our state and nation through excellence in instruction, research, creative activity, and public service. The University is committed to assist students in their search for knowledge and understanding and to prepare them with the attitudes, skills, and habits of lifelong learning in order to assume responsibility in a democratic community and to be useful members of a global society. (emphasis added)


…[But] [t]he missions of Butte College and Chico State do not exist in a vacuum, because middle-class values are profoundly influenced by the actions, wants, and needs of those above them and even those at social distant Harvard. Robert Frank’s book Falling Behind (2007) is among the most articulate in describing the very nature of economic inequality and the ideological interrelationships that develop in a fashion that, in Bourdieu’s words, “are identical to the interests of the dominant.” In other words the values of Chico State satisfy the needs of Harvard for midlevel managers who will be “useful members of a global society.” And finally down to the graduates of Butte College who can do the tasks that require “mastery of basic skills” and are needed by those above them in the system of hierarchical dominance….

Source; Tony Waters, Schooling, Bureaucracy, and Childhood: Bureaucratizing the Child.  Palsgrave Books 2012.  Pages 112-115.