Rattle your assumptions with anthropology

Left: photo of young boy having his head shaved. Right: A human form stands in darkness, wearing a bodysuit illuminated from head to toe with various multi-colored circuits.

Left: a young Burmese boy has his head shaved by an older monk as part of a Shinbyu ceremony — a rite of passage considered in 21A.150J Teaching and Learning: Cross-Cultural Perspectives. (Courtesy of Dietmar Temps on Flickr. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.) Right: Wearable technology is one of the technologies considered in 21A.500 Technology in Culture. (Image courtesy of Keoni Cabral on Flickr. License CC BY.)

By Joe Pickett, OCW Publication Director

Think of the phrase “challenging course at MIT,” and what might spring to mind?

Probably advanced courses with heady mathematics and intimidating titles like 18.338J Infinite Random Matrix Theory, and 8.325 Relativistic Quantum Field Theory III.

But MIT has many challenging courses of a different kind—courses that rattle your assumptions about what is normal and show you a side of life you never imagined. The MIT Department of Anthropology offers a full array of courses that fit this bill, pushing students to open their minds and expand their cultural horizons. Recent Anthro publications cover a variety of concerning and thought-proving topics with curated reading lists. Most courses include links to films and videos as well. Here’s what we’re talking about:

Going to school is just one form of knowledge transmission and skill transfer. This course looks at social learning, apprenticeship, initiation, rites of passage, the development of identity, along with the traditional Western model of schooling.

The syllabus sums it up nicely: “This course examines the contemporary problem of political violence and the way that human rights are conceived as a means to protect and promote freedom, peace, and justice for citizens, as well as to restrict the abuses of the state.” Do universal human rights overlook the varying needs and values of different cultures? Are there valid justifications for suspending human rights during emergencies? No easy questions here!

While it may be comforting to think that slavery ended in 1865 at the courthouse in Appomattox, slavery and the selling of human beings persist around the world. What factors make this possible? The course explores the prevalence of forced sex work, child labor, the illicit trade in organs, debt bondage, and other disturbing topics that we often prefer to tune out.

The conference room is double-booked again. Management has been tracking your keystrokes. Your cell phone has already given up your location.  But we love technology! This course asks, “Does technology save us work? Improve our health? Ameliorate social inequality?”

Political marketing was invented in the United States in the 1930s with the wide acceptance of radio and film in American culture, and it became one of America’s most successful exports. This course looks at its variants in Latin America: “By looking at the debates and expert practices at the core of the business of politics, we will explore how the ‘universal’ concept of democracy is interpreted and reworked as it travels through space and time. Specifically, we will study how different groups experimenting with political marketing in different cultural contexts understand the role of citizens in a democracy.”

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