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Native Pathways to Education
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Cross-Cultural Issues in

Alaskan Education Vol. II


James M. Orvik
Center for Cross-Cultural Studies
University of Alaska, Fairbanks

(Ed. note: This paper was originally prepared for presentation at the 40th Annual Meeting of the Society for Applied Anthropology, Denver, March 22, 1980 and has been slightly revised for this volume.)

If Wendell Oswalt is to be taken seriously, this paper would be more appropriate for presentation at the Annual Meeting of the Society for Neglected Anthropology. Oswalt bemoaned the tendency for anthropologists to ignore modern technological influences. He thus speculated:

As the number of aboriginal groups declined, Anthropological interest in technology began to lose much of its momentum. Most ethnographers have been reluctant to describe and analyze the technologies of peoples in the process of westernization, if only because imported manufactured goods often have replaced locally handcrafted artifacts within a relatively short span of time (Oswalt, 1976: 33-4).

If we ignore for the moment some of the notable exceptions to the above statement, it probably strikes a chord of recognition in many of us.

What I wish to discuss in this paper, however, has nothing to do with the frequency with which anthropologists study technology. Rather, I discuss the models that seen most often to be used by social scientists, not just anthropologists, to guide the study of technology. These models not only influence the selection of questions raised about technology, but guide the selection of answers as well.

First, what do I mean by technology? A much-maligned term these days, technology can raise a red flag for about half the people. For the other half, preceding “technology” by the adjective “appropriate” evokes a response of similar vigor, especially in Alaska.

The Random House Dictionary of the English Language defines technology as “1. the branch of knowledge that deals with industrial arts, applied science, engineering, etc. 2. the application of knowledge for practical ends, as in a particular field: educational technology,” for example. Funk and Wagnal Is (1954) gives precedence to technology as “Theoretical knowledge of industries,” and secondarily, “the application of science to the arts.”

To the extent I understand these definitions, they reflect current popular usage. We are certainly used to equating the suffix, -ology, -- with the study of whatever precedes it, treating it as a body of knowable knowledge. On the other hand, I find such definitions awkward because of the infinite logical spiral they initiate. If technology is the knowledge of something people know how to do, so must there be a knowledge of that knowledge, which requires further knowledge, and so on. What is needed is a definition that doesn’t start with knowledge about knowledge, but simply assumes certain abilities to have existed and proceeds to the product. Oswalt (1976), for example, defines technology “as all the ways in which people produce artifacts (p. 33).” One is then freed by this definition to study the “technology” of something or someone. The important thing is that this definition rightly implies all humans are technological. More than that, Oswalt is of the opinion essentially that we are what we make:

My contention is that man is first and foremost a technological animal and that the major distinctions among lifeways should be made on the basis of manufactured forms (Oswalt, 1973: 21).

One needn’t agree with Oswalt to see the distinction between his definition of technology and the connotations prevailing in the socio-political climate of today. Clearly, what most people have in mind is some nonspecified concept of Western technology, usually with the assumption that applied science is its basis.

Ferguson, a historian and “curator of technology,” made a number of observations that help bridge the obvious gap between the latter view that mixes the sciences with technology to produce Western technology, and the former view of Oswalt’s that so overly includes all human productive endeavors as to be nearly useless. Ferguson first states:

This scientific age too readily assumes that whatever knowledge may be incorporated in the artifacts of technology must be derived from science. This assumption is a bit of folklore that ignores the many nonscientific decisions, both large and small, made by technologists as they design the world we inhabit (1977: 827).

The point I wish to make is that the distinction that creeps into thinking based on this folklore is not only a false one, but one that helps explain the apparent neglect of technology by anthropologists. On the other hand, the same false distinction, between Western and anyone else’s technology, because it confounds science with technology, has encouraged an entrepreneurship of technology that people, anthropologists especially, find increasingly odious.

Alaska seems especially attractive to technology entrepreneurs, perhaps because there are problems posed by the natural environment that challenge the modern technologist’s sense of adventure. More likely, because great sums of money are spent annually to solve Alaska’s rural cross-cultural “problems” by technological means, there are more than enough vendors to go around. The example that canes most readily to mind is the rapid, almost revolutionary development of telecommunications in rural Alaska. For over four years the Alaska State Legislature, reflecting for the most part rural interests, has subsidized the delivery of entertainment T.V. to twenty-two small vii ages throughout the state. Last year the legislature appropriated ten mil lion dollars to expand the program to every village with twenty-five or more people in it. The Governor vetoed all but a modest expansion of the program. Knowing the political impossibility of discontinuing their hold on this tiger’s tail, the legislature has gently asked other state agencies to develop less entertaining uses for the state’s extensive investment in primetime T.V.

The State Department of Education has responded to this gentle pressure with considerable enthusiasm. Under that agency, numerous uses of the state’s satellite telecommunications network have been designed to take advantage of the “free” satellite transponder time already leased by the state under its original program. There are nonsatellite educational technology applications resulting from the momentum as well. Clearly we are in something of a development spiral in which telecommunications technology (the kind some people don’t like) has been proliferated under what may well be a self-justifying ritual.

In Alaska, perhaps elsewhere as well, we can identify two main models of thinking used to evaluate these rapid technological developments; the military model and the medical model. The first I call the military model, not because anyone is at war, but because the modern military is the embodiment of the systematic, planned application of science to technology. If Gilbert and Sullivan were alive today, they most certainly would create a “Modern Major General” pattering on about computer-based management systems. He might sing something like:

Toward General Systems Theory
I’m ‘Bang for Buck’ in attitudes.
I’ll plan your life, remove all strife,
With systematic platitudes,
Like ‘Maximize your minimum
for optimum complexity.’
And if you will abide that swill,
I’ll pluck you from perplexity.

Postman’s (1976) term for complete faith in planning is “systemaphilia,” a morbid attraction to certainty. When applied to complex problems such as waging a war or designing a curriculum, systemaphilia “arises from the assumption that human beings are sufficiently clever, knowledgeable, and multiperspectived to design complete and just about perfect systems of human activity.”

Planning and evolution by definition contradict one another, they are mutually exclusive processes. I won’t go so far as to say that planning is “unnatural” in the dark, perverse sense, but it is unnatural in the literal sense. Both refer to possible ways things can get done. One distinction may be that planning is what brings change under intentional human control. My contention is that planning merely reorganizes intentional human control by concentrating it in the hands of fewer humans. As opposed to the planning of technology, the evolution of technology has by its nature been driven by the decentralized, diffused activity of individuals in face-to-face interaction with other individuals. The control is still there, but it is organized in a way that never allows the authority to implement technology to exceed the willingness of the receiver to refuse it. Information is the key, not just ethnographic information but the kind of intelligence that notices what people are trying to do with their everyday lives. Such information is created by direct observation, not through “needs assessments.” The assessment of needs is itself a technology authoritatively implemented without regard to its cultural appropriateness.

To illustrate the point further, in one of their planning documents the Alaska State Department of Education have proposed “A technology based model for individualized instruction.”

The instructional model described is designed to maximize development of students’ decision-making ability and their role in the instructional design process. The model is predicated upon a systematically integrated system of learning matrices. The matrices are carefully developed in close cooperation with the student and are designated to provide a meaningful, relevant education which is sensitive to the values of both the student and the school (Nelson, 1979:ii).

It is clear that what is desired by the author is a totally managed educational environment in which teaching functions are conceptualized “as analogous to those of a ‘learning manager,’” connoting “greater precision in the design and development of learning matrix networks for individual students.”

If the reader is still not convinced in the faith Nelson (and DOE, by implication) has in systems, the following is offered:

The process concept inherent within the advisor’s management function also strongly supports the development of a systematic, data-based, decision process. This single concept -- systematic, data- based decision-making -- is virtually revolutionary in education and will almost single-handedly ensure the delivery of a meaningful, relevant education (Nelson, 1979:46).

My objective here is not to evaluate the completeness, consistency, or even the desirability of this system. I have only one criticism: the system presupposes the compliance of the student (not to mention the teacher) to participate. By not leaving room to say no to the system, students and teachers have only passive-aggressive means at their disposal by which to resist this particular form of perfection. As such, this is a good example of authority to implement technology which exceeds the willingness of the receiver to refuse it. The authority referred to here is not the authority to coerce but to seduce, by the systematic employment of self-justifying features, the principle such feature being “contingency management.”

One technique which has proven to be highly successful, in motivation management, has been contingency management. This refers to a systematic approach for assuring the availability of various kinds of reward, contingent upon the satisfactory execution of each desired performance (Nelson, 1979:48, emphasis added).

Who could resist such a prospect? That’s the problem.

The second model is the one currently preferred by most anthropologists. I call it the medical model because it treats technology as a contagious disease to which minority cultures are particularly susceptible. The difference between the military model and the medical model are sharp and well focused.

I won’t dwell at length on the features of the medical model, because they self-evidently contrast with the features of the military model. Where one seeks planned perfection, the other analyzes “unplanned consequences of planned social change.” Where one seeks to predict and control outcomes, the other prefers to say “I told you so.” Both models, however, share a common feature. They both reflect one of the more persistent residues of modern folklore: that technology is a product of science. Ferguson points out that “this scientific age too readily assumes that whatever knowledge may be incorporated in the artifacts of technology must be derived from science” (Ferguson, 1977:827).

The belief in a mythological relationship between science and technology has important educational implications. According to Ferguson, such a belief de-emphasizes the role of nonverbal visualization:

Pyramids, cathedrals, and rockets exist not because of geometry, theory of structure, or thermodynamics, but because they were first a picture-- literally a vision -- in the minds of those who build them.

He questions the long-term value of the systematic reduction in status of aspects of education related to visualization in engineering design courses in favor of more analytical methods:

Nonverbal thinking, which is a central mechanism in engineering design, involves perceptions, the stock- in-trade of the artist not the scientist. Because perceptive processes are not assumed to entail ‘hard thinking,’ it has been customary in engineering curricula to consider nonverbal thought among the more primitive stages in the development of cognitive processes and inferior to verbal or mathematical thought (p. 834).

The implications of Ferguson’s observations for education, especially for cross-cultural education, are significant. First, there is ample evidence within the dominant culture that the variety of cognitive styles represented in the general population of students is systematically ignored in education curricula (Messick, 1970; Witkin, 1973). If this is true within the dominant culture, it may be even more so in situations where dominant culture education models are transferred to a radically different environment where cognitive differences may be even more pronounced (Kleinfeld, 1973; Witkin, 1967).

Witkin and Berry (1975) have done research suggesting that the mode of interact ion a culture characteristically has with its, environment exerts a powerful influence over how members of that culture process information in order to survive. It follows that a culture’s technology is also a result of the person-environment interaction.

We face the prospect of a rural Alaskan village curriculum based on increasingly verbal information foundations, It should surprise no one that one “needs assessment” after another gives “language deficiency” top priority among rural education problems to be solved. I contend here that any need to enhance nonverbal visualization processes in order to solve community problems never had a fair chance to be revealed. The methods typically used to assess needs -- primarily verbal, primarily system-based -- preclude our ability even to raise such needs as questions. It isn’t a fair fight.

And yet we now have sufficient reason to be concerned that in the name of “systematic planning” we have the potential to exclude the very educational processes needed to foster intellectual self-sufficiency. Intellectual self-sufficiency implies a deep understanding of and adaptability to the immediate context. But intellectual self-sufficiency also implies independence from the constraints of science as folklore. Systemaphilia is science folklore run amok, in social science no less than in “hard” science. Curriculum design that is overly dependent on verbal descriptions and verbal specification leaves untouched those human capacities by which people created the world in which they live.

The dilemma implied by my conceptualization of the military v. the medical model lies in its erosive effect on intellectual self-sufficiency. The proliferation of sophisticated Western technology may be a Faustian bargain, but attacking it by means of the medical model is nothing less than Quixotic. In their extreme forms, both approaches are bound to create more, rather than less, dependency on physical, economic, and intellectual resources outside the isolated environments in which the members of Alaska’s indigenous minority groups have chosen to live.

The question is how to make potential technological innovations self-evaluating within the environments they are supposed to improve.

I have stated already my lack of faith in the ability of the military model to plan away the unwanted features of technology. I have little more faith in what I have cal led the medical model because it relies heavily on a priori assumptions that outside innovations represent cultural discontinuities too great to be of benefit, followed by post hoc evaluations affirming the consequent. Nor will a laissez-faire position be of any help because unnecessary technology is not self-rejecting. This is, “natural’ evolutionary forces will not cause an inappropriate technology to fall under its own weight as long as the entrepreneurs of technology, local or otherwise, continue to find their work profitable.

A necessary part of the answer is to shift the locus of control to local entrepreneurship. However, even though this shift is a necessary condition, further conditions need to be explored before sufficient safe-guards against the unwanted effects of technology can be realized.

Does the answer lie in advocating a conservative policy about technology? That is, should we, as social scientists, merely encourage Native constituencies to exercize prudence in the face of the hard sell? Possibly, but I think in the long run such a policy would foster a climate of distrust rather than cooperation. Local entrepreneurship is already on the increase through the provisions of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. An air of across-the-board conservatism would erode the conditions by which to gain the experience to make sound technology investments.

There is considerable evidence that in Native communities the consumption of technology is highly selective (Orvik, 1977:171). Telecommunications demonstrations that have been organized to allow individuals a great deal of choice when and when not to participate have shown community-specific patterns of consumption. More specifically, it appears that aspects of technology based on the presumption of a cultural deficit, in this case standard English oral language development, are particularly subject to polite rejection by Native consumers.

The latter finding is perhaps the most important clue I can offer an “applied anthropologist” who is searching for a useful alternative to the two models I have presented in this paper. Ethnographic insight, tempered with a fair-minded appreciation for the potential value of technological innovations may be, in the long run, the most appropriate and realistic preventative anyone could prescribe.


Dictionary of the English language 1975. New York: Random House.
Ferguson, E. S. “The mind’s eye. Nonverbal thought in technology,” in Science 197, 827-36, 1977.
Kleinfeld, J. “Intellectual strengths in culturally different groups: An Eskimo illustration,” in Review of educational research 43, 341-59, 1973.
Messick, S. “The criterion problem in the evaluation of instruction: Assessing possible, not just intended, outcomes.” The evaluation of instruction: Issues and problems. M.C. Wittrock and D. Willey, eds. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1970.
Nelson, F. G. A general description of a technology-based model for individualized instruction. Juneau, Alaska: Alaska Department of Education, Office of Planning and Research. Mimeo, 1979.
Orvik, J. M. “ESCA/Alaska: An educational demonstration.” Journal of Communication 27. 166-72, 1977.
Oswalt, W. H. Habitat and technology: The evolution of hunting. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1973.
_______. An anthropological analysis of food-getting technology. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1976.
Postman, N. Crazy talk, stupid talk. New York: Delacorte Press, 1976.
Standard dictionary of the English language 1954. New York: Funk and Wagnalls.
Witkin, H. A. “A cognitive style approach to cross-cultural research,” in International journal of psychology. 2: 233-50, 1967.
_______.“The role of cognitive style in academic performane and in teacher-student relations.” (RB-73-11). Princeton, New Jersey: Educational Testing Service, 1973
Witkin, H. A. and J. W. Berry. “Psychological differentiation in cross-cultural perspective.” Journal of cross-cultural psychology 6. 4-87, 1975.




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Last modified October 14, 2008