The following comment is extracted from a conversation started by Mary Alice Scott's post "Paolo Freire, Critical Knowledge and Anthropological Mentoring" on Savage Minds.
In Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome: The Constitution of Emersonian Perfectionism, the philosopher Stanley Cavell observes that conventional models of learning assume travelers all climbing the same peak. Those higher up the slope have a duty to lend a hand to those lower down and the right to insist that they follow instruction based on superior “been there, done that” knowledge. Cavell proposes an alternative view in which we are all learners traveling across a great plain to multiple destinations. When our paths cross, we may offer to share what we have learned and seek to learn from the other. But neither side can insist that the other do what they are told. The great teacher is a great model of whatever it is that he or she teaches, but the choice of whether to follow the example is left up to the student.
To me, this proposal fits nicely with the observations of Mikhail Bakhtin in his “Letter to Novy Mir” that all true cultural understanding involves dialogue. It must since those on both sides have their own blind spots, which only the other can see.
There are, of course, circumstances that modify these views. A parent dealing with a two year-old can only get so far by attempting to engage in a conversation of equals. The same is true of socialization processes with highly specific goals, what goes on in military boot camps or basic science courses, for example. There is nothing to be gained on either side by debating whether recruits should stand at attention or how an often repeated experiment should be performed.
On the whole, however, what Cavell and Bakhtin suggest to me is that the best relationship in both business and fieldwork is collegial. People on both sides recognize that there is something to be learned from the other. There is mutual respect and a willingness to reserve judgment. Leaping to conclusions is not allowed.
When I ask myself what made Vic Turner a great field anthropologist, I need only to remember interacting with him. He had the uncanny gift of treating everyone he spoke with, from the lowliest undergraduate to the most distinguished senior professor as if what they were saying was of the utmost importance and had his full attention. That’s a mentor I wish I had it in me to better emulate.