Schooling as Uncertainty
Does more schooling always lead to a better life? Is this optimistic view a certainty everyone around the world can expect? My guest today, Fran Vavrus, has recently written a new book that weaves together her 30 years of work in Tanzania with her own biography as an academic, mother, and development practitioner. She details the tension between the certainty and uncertainty inherent in education.
Fran Vavrus is a Professor of Comparative and International Development Education at the University of Minnesota. Her new book is Schooling as Uncertainty: An ethnographic memoir in comparative education.
Citation: Vavrus, Frances, interview with Will Brehm, FreshEd, 231, podcast audio, March 8, 2021. https://freshedpodcast.com/vavrus/
Will Brehm 1:31
Fran Vavrus, welcome back to FreshEd.
Frances Vavrus 1:33
Thank you for inviting me, Will. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Will Brehm 1:36
So, what first brought you to Tanzania about 25 years ago?
Frances Vavrus 1:40
I went to Tanzania for the first time when I was a master’s student at the University of Illinois. I was in an applied linguistics and African Studies program, and I had received a three-year foreign language and area studies fellowship to study Swahili. So, after the first two years of Swahili study, I was eligible to apply for a Fulbright-Hays group project abroad in Tanzania. So, Kenya and Tanzania. So, I went there for a summer of intensive Swahili study. And this was back in the summer of 1990. So, I have actually been going to Tanzania for more than 30 years, and I had no idea that 31 years later, I would still be so deeply connected to this country.
Will Brehm 2:26
Wow. That’s quite amazing. I mean, to want to learn Swahili. I mean, that’s an unusual desire. In America, the languages that are taught in schools usually are German and French. And so why Swahili?
Frances Vavrus 2:40
Well, perhaps one reason is that my father was a linguistics professor. And my mother taught Spanish for many years, and then English as a second language. So, in my family, we were always talking about languages and no one had studied a Bantu language, but I knew that there was something called the Bantu language family. But more directly, my senior year in college, I had the very good fortune of meeting the late Manning Marable, who some of you may know, wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning book on Malcolm X. And he was a visiting professor at Purdue University where I did my bachelor’s degree. And so, I was one of only three students in his class on African -I think it was called African post-colonial history. And we spent about a third of the semester reading about Tanzania and talking about Julius Nyerere, the country’s first post-independence President. And I became just completely captivated by the adult education and primary school focus of the Nyerere government. And it was Manning Marable, who said, do you know there are fellowships where you could for your master’s degree study Swahili, and I had never heard of them before. And so, he was the one who set me on this course, away from Latin American Studies, which is what I was doing at the time toward African Studies. And so, I am eternally grateful. When I became a professor at Teachers College, he was a professor at Columbia, and I remember going in to see him and say, “Do you remember me because you changed my life.” And it was a really special moment to recognize the influence that a professor can have on a student.
Will Brehm 4:15
And everyone has a professor like that in their lives most likely over their educational journey. Did you expect that when you were sitting in those Swahili classes, as a master student, that you would basically be going back to Tanzania year after year for the next two, three decades?
Frances Vavrus 4:32
I did not. I had such aspirations. I would listen to my professors in the African linguistics class. He was actually from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and another professor who was from South Africa, and they talked about the countries from which they came and their love of these places. And I was in a sort of captivated in that sort of exoticizing way that many of us are early on in our careers when we are interested in another part of the world. But it wasn’t until the summer that I spent in Tanzania that I realized that there was something very special for me about being there and trying to understand this language that was quite different from German and Spanish, which I had studied. But more importantly, when I did visit a school, I was filled with questions really about how was it that some kids got into school and others didn’t? Why were teachers teaching the way they were teaching? And it opened up many more questions for me than answers. And so, I hoped that I would have the chance to go back and can do some research at the time. But what happened, as I document in the first couple chapters of the book, is that I did go back to Tanzania two years later for a year, but I was the trailing spouse, and I didn’t find that role to be very satisfying. And I was filled with doubts. I wasn’t coping well with this problem and that problem. And so, I actually left Tanzania for about six weeks during that that period, and left that spouse, left this country, I don’t know if I’m coming back. Something happened that I described in the book that led me to this kind of moment of existential doubt. And so, I, during that period of being back in the United States, I thought a lot about how am I possibly going to be able to do the research in Tanzania and live in Tanzania, which was my goal for a couple of years, and do it in a way that would sustain me and allow me to accept my shortcomings as a person. So, after a while, I realized, I think I needed to give it another chance. And so, I went back to Tanzania and spent then the rest of this year teaching at the school that becomes the heart of this entire book.
Will Brehm 6:55
So, can I ask what changed? Like what made you realize it was time to go back?
Frances Vavrus 7:00
Well, I spent those six weeks with this group of women with whom I lived during my master’s degree at the University of Illinois, and they became very, very close friends. One of them comes to Tanzania, several years later, when I was living there, and she’s described in the book, too. And so, this woman, including my own sister, who was there at the time, said, “Look! You have unrealistic expectations of everything from marriage to being a researcher. And so, the romance of both is an obstacle to your flourishing.” Which is this idea, in a sense, of “cruel optimism” that we can talk about a little bit later that lies at the center of this story. And I also thought that after talking to my parents, and hearing them describe their struggles as newlyweds and their difficulties over the years, that, yeah, I did have unrealistic expectations. I thought, if I read a book about how to be married well, if I read a book about being a researcher, then through this educating of the self, I could do those things that were described in these texts. And as I discussed throughout the book, education is not a way to alleviate uncertainty, it may minimize it in many ways, but it doesn’t eliminate it.
Will Brehm 8:16
It’s like you approached these life problems from an academic standpoint, right?
Frances Vavrus 8:20
Oh, completely, completely. And one of the chapters in the book describes my childbirth experience with my first son. And that was also a case where I thought if I read enough about it, and took the birthing classes, and ate well, and exercised, then it could be a natural birth and that didn’t happen. And so that was another early moment in my life, I was a doctoral student at the time when that happened, that I also began to wonder about the extent to which being what Dewey called a sort of spectator, having a spectator theory of education, is sufficient for understanding how we live our lives in practice.
Will Brehm 9:00
This sort of tension between trying to have certainty in our lives versus the inevitable uncertainty that happens and the role of education that plays in helping us sort of navigate that terrain. Did you see that in Tanzania, like you saw it in your own life experiences?
Frances Vavrus 9:19
Very much so. There were many moments where I saw that, and I’ve tried to recount some of those in the book. So, the book is organized into six paired sections. So, there are two chapters. One focuses a little bit more on my life, and then one draws on this ethnographic project to illustrate the relationship between the two. So, for example, chapter three that talks about my experience with childbirth. Then chapter four, which is paired with it, talks about how my eight-month-old son becomes a sort of source of data collection or knowledge generation when we go to Tanzania and what I learned about women’s experiences with childbirth and very high-risk childbirth. That was a moment where I could see that even when people plan carefully for a safe birth, it doesn’t necessarily happen. So, that chapter describes a couple of deaths in the community the year we were there for my doctoral research. So, in one case, the daughter of a teacher at the school, newborn dies because she’s taken to a hospital where there weren’t a sufficient number of doctors that night. And a student at the high school dies due to an asthma attack, and he couldn’t get to the hospital in time. So, even though this young man was part of a very small percentage of the population at the time, about 15%, who had the opportunity to go to school, being in school at that moment in a rural school with no transportation led to his death.
Will Brehm 10:57
It’s quite tragic, isn’t it?
Frances Vavrus 10:58
It is. It was a very sobering time.
Will Brehm 11:00
So, is this where cruel optimism comes in? How does the idea of cruel optimism come in then to help us understand that experience plus some of the experiences that that you were having?
Frances Vavrus 11:11
Yeah. Well, so Lauren Berlant is one of the scholars who has helped me to think about this project over the several years that it took to write this book. And she has an entire book called ‘Cruel Optimism.’ So, in brief, she defines it as, and I’m quoting her here, “A relation of attachment to compromised conditions of possibility.” So, it’s the idea that when we become attached to something to which we aspire, that attachment itself can compromise our well-being. And so, in the latter half of the book, especially, I tried to link the idea of cruel optimism to aspirations. And so, the work on aspirations is rather vast. People like Arjun Appadurai written about it, but I dropped most extensively on anthropologist James Ferguson’s work, which I’ve been reading since I was a doctoral student. His classic text, The Anti-Politics Machine, came out, I think, in 1990. And his more recent work in critical development studies based on his many years of working in Southern Africa talks about aspirational equality, and that there isn’t equality in realizing our aspirations. If we think about global socioeconomic inequality, that makes realizing aspirations much more difficult for some folks rather than others. And especially people from low-income communities in Southern and East Africa in this case. So, there are two chapters toward the end of the book where I really look at cruel optimism in relation to aspirations and educational policy and how sudden changes in policy can thwart the aspirations of those who hope to further their lives through education. And one of the chapters is an example based on this year that my family and I spent at a teacher’s college in the Kilimanjaro region. So, fast forward from my son being eight months old to now he’s a sixth-grader with a younger brother in third grade. And so, we lived at this college. But anyway, I was teaching at the college as well as being a Fulbrighter working on a longitudinal research project nearby. And the school year started in August of 2006. And in October of 2006, the Tanzanian government announced that all teacher training programs for secondary school teachers needed to graduate their students by the end of the year, so that they could start teaching in secondary schools in January, rather than graduating in May, with a whole additional semester of preparation in a two-year teacher training program. And so, what happened then, was that we, the lecturers, had to completely redesign our diploma program cutting out, or cutting way down, on student teaching opportunities and much of the curriculum that we had. Well, the effects of that change, were at first, the faculty, my colleagues, were frustrated. They said, “We aspire to be lecturers and academics like you. And we know that in the rest of the world, academics do research. And how can we possibly do research when we now have to teach even more quickly, more intensively.” And then, over the years since then, the college has expanded dramatically into a university with thousands of students from the small group that year. So, my colleagues have very few opportunities to work as academics doing research. And the second outcome of that policy had to do with the students themselves, these aspiring teachers. They were sent off, then, to teach without a full program under their belts, without the kind of experience they had hoped for. So, my colleagues and I developed a program that we called Teaching in Action. We invited back our recent graduates from the college and helped them deal with some of the challenges that they were facing in teaching in rural schools with few resources and implementing the learner-centered pedagogy that they’ve been taught at the college when that was pretty tough in a class of 80, or 100 kids and when senior colleagues didn’t support it. So, those are some illustrations of the way that an attachment to being a first-class academic or attachment to being a really good teacher, may not happen because of policies that change and disrupt one’s life. And I should say that the reason Tanzania decided so quickly to expand its secondary school sector was pressure from the World Bank as part of the debt forgiveness policies that first they needed to expand primary schooling, which they had done several years earlier. And then, the second phase was expansion of secondary school. So, there are secondary schools being built all over the country, and then teachers were supposed to be trained quickly to fill those schools. So, it was the international change in policy that affected national policy, that affected the lives of teachers. And so, my interest over the years in that kind of anthropology of policy is based on the possibility of exploring such moments like this and the lived experience of policy change.
Will Brehm 16:18
I keep wondering, could policy have had the opposite effect of being, instead of cruel, could it actually have been helpful, right? Could particular policies, sort of created spaces where people could then have more optimistic aspirations than previously, I don’t know if you’ve ever saw that in Tanzania. But it makes me think, if policy can sort of produce that cruel optimism, I wonder if there’s a flip side to that that would be the beneficial optimism, let’s say.
Frances Vavrus 16:45
Certainly. And the final chapter of the book looks at that. It looks at both the cruel optimism, and I guess the more positive optimism. I guess optimism is, by definition positive but anyway, what I do is, from 2000 to 2012, I was involved in a longitudinal project in the same community, looking at the changes in a group of youth who are in the final two years of primary school in the year 2000. And what happened to them over the next 12 years when they could have gone on to secondary school. And this was right around the time in 2002 when the primary sector expanded. And then in 2006, they had this big secondary school expansion, starting in 2005, actually. So, I examine the lives of four youth in this study, two women and two men. And what we see is that they had the opportunity to go to primary school, and they all went -well, three of the four went to secondary school. So, that’s unusual, to have three-quarters of a group of young people go to secondary school. And among all the students in this study, only about 20% did, but these particular four, these kids had something in common from their primary school experience that I thought made it interesting to look at their long-term trajectories. So, because of the increased opportunities for secondary schooling, and even tertiary education, these young people were striving to get into secondary school and then get into college or university. So, policy opened up possibilities, increased their aspirations. But what I show in this chapter is that the young woman who, among all of these kids in this longitudinal study, had the most clear path to academic success. Top kid in her class. Her aspirations were not just to go to university, but she wanted to get a master’s degree in economics and become a journalist studying economics. She had a very clear idea of what she wanted to do. And she got into secondary school and got a fellowship to do that. But then her family was not able to pay for her continued schooling because they needed to pay for her two younger siblings schooling. And so, she took another option instead of going to university, which she couldn’t afford, she was able to get support to go to a teacher training college, and when I interviewed her in 2012, I brought up what she had said she wanted to do in 2000, in 2006, and she was choked up. And she said, “Well, clearly, I’m not doing a master’s degree, am I?” But the other theme in the book, along with this kind of trying to make life more certain through schooling, is how do we explain our lives when that doesn’t happen? And in this community, there is a strong belief that it’s God’s plan. So, she said, “Well, I think it’s God’s plan because now I’m a special ed teacher, and I love teaching special ed students. So, my life has worked out okay.” It’s only the young men in this final chapter, who through various connections, were able to afford to go on in school. So, policy made it possible to go to school if you had the resources, but it was still through connections to pay for it that only some smart young kids were able to obtain their aspiration for higher education. Not everyone who has grit. Not everyone who has passed the national exam, who has these cognitive and non-cognitive skills that we seem so focused on in the field of education can use those to reach their goals. And that’s something I tried to show throughout the book that we have very different degrees of aspirational ability, or ability to obtain our aspirations. And I think that more attention needs to be focused on that rather than simply teaching kids more stuff in school because not everyone’s going to be able to realize that.
Will Brehm 20:43
There’s obviously a clear gender factor at play here, right? The one-woman you spoke with, she had lots of aspirations and had clear future plans, but she, unfortunately, “God’s plan” put her off on a different path. Whereas the young men that you followed, they were all able to make the connections, pay for the schooling, and actually achieve their aspirations.
Frances Vavrus 21:06
That’s an important point, Will, and I’ve thought about this a lot. Especially as I was revising the final draft of this book last year, as I was sitting in Minneapolis a couple miles away really from where George Floyd was killed. And the burning of the police precinct was just a few blocks from my house. And I started thinking a lot about why this book, why these 30 years of my life have been so focused on gender, gender relations, and socio-economic inequality but almost to the absence of a focus on race. And so, what I’ve thought about, and I do note this in the introduction, is that when I started graduate school, in the 1990s, the international development agenda was so focused on girls education. There was just this belief that if we could just get enough girls, mainly in Africa and Asia, into school, they would have fewer children, and they would have better health outcomes, and they would become the engines of economic development, all of which has some support. I mean, I’m not saying the research there is inaccurate. But that approach of just getting girls into school doesn’t address many challenges that women have, even once they have completed secondary or tertiary education, in using that education to change their lives. So, I think my focus on gender over these years has been because of that starting point, and the fact that I have experienced gender-based discrimination, and that it really felt very close to me. But what I realized in looking back over these years, and the reasons why race wasn’t more pronounced was the first that racial histories and racial politics are very different in the United States and in Tanzania. And so, to assume that those are going to be the same the world over, I think, is a bit simplistic. On the other hand, I was rereading notes from one case in particular. Notes from when I took students to Tanzania on short-term study abroad programs twice while I was a professor at Teachers College. And I remember and wrote about being in a taxi with an African American student, and we were passing a big traffic accident that it happened on the road. And she turned to me and said, “If we have an accident, I sure hope I’m with you when it happens.” And I was like, “Why would that be?” And she said, “Because you’re white, and then whoever comes to take us to the hospital will know I’m a Black American, and I ought to be treated like you, rather than being an African.” And that has stayed with me all these years, I thought, that’s just an awareness of being an American and being Black might be different from being African and being Black, and my whiteness marks me as foreign right away. And thus, I would most likely be taken to a more expensive hospital, a better hospital. So, there are just these clear blind spots in my analysis in my research that would, I think, be markedly different if I were starting a doctoral program today when awareness of structural racism and the legacies of that and the conditions of that around the world are much more pronounced.
Will Brehm 24:19
It’s such an interesting sort of combination of reflection and memoir and looking back at your sort of very long career of empirical work in some of the same parts of Tanzania for so long. And you have all of these journal entries and old letters that you go through and, of course, your old writings. And this issue of race is really quite powerful to bring it up as sort of being an absence in some of your work. And so, I just wonder, are there other cringeworthy moments that you’ve realized, as you’ve been poring over these old journal entries and letters, that you realize, “Wow, it’s quite problematic that I didn’t bring up some of these issues” or, what else did you uncover about yourself in a way?
Frances Vavrus 25:06
Will, there were so many cringeworthy moments that that was at one point one of the reasons I almost stopped writing this book. I was embarrassed by some of my letters home in the 1990s, in particular, and even some of my field note entries, I could see were not as objective as I hope they would be based on my research methods classes. So, I do write in the introduction about the influence of Ruth Behar, another anthropologist, on my work. And she describes being what she calls a vulnerable observer, and how she tried to write about both her research and the periods of her life during which she was doing research. How studying, experiencing a death in her family, and looking at death in Spain made the research more meaningful, or provided different insights. And so, I decided that I would include some of these cringeworthy moments in the book so that the next generation of scholars realizes that more senior people were not born understanding the phenomena that may have captivated them all of their lives, or not being these wise figures that they think we are, which we’re not. But we have grown over the years. And so, I include, in particularly, the earlier chapters, material that I might otherwise not want to share. And one of those examples I can give you is from the second chapter of the book, when, after returning to the United States for these six weeks and thinking through my life, I returned to Tanzania to this high school that I call Njema secondary school. And the first week they’re teaching, the assistant principal, who becomes a very, very close friend and still is to this day, takes me into the canteen where the teachers are eating lunch. And a female teacher grabs a spoon and takes it to the spicket and washes it, and my friend says to me, “Well, we only have four spoons to share among the 20 or so teachers.” And so, she hands me the spoon still dripping with water, and I knew from past experience that untreated water for me often leads to stomach ailments. But I didn’t want to embarrass her by drying off the spoon or washing it myself. So, I just plunged in and start eating my beans and rice with the spoon. And this happened day after day, I would try to get there earlier and wash the spoon myself. And it never happened. People were so generous, like let me give you my spoon. So, by the end of the week, I’m sick. So, I think a solution would be to go to the market nearby and for what to me was a mere $20, I could buy an entire set of cutlery for the staff and give it to them as kind of a welcome gift. So, I mentioned this to my friend the next week that I would like to do this. And he says to me, in his most polite voice, I’m sure he’s thinking inside all kinds of things. He says, “Madam, we have many more needs at the school than a new set of cutlery. And if you would like to make a donation, here are the things we actually need.” I was terribly embarrassed, realizing that what I thought was a problem was not what the staff at the school thought was a problem. These are folks who were often not getting paid because the students hadn’t paid their tuition because of the economic crisis in the country at the time. So, buy new spoons was really low on the list. And so, I try to think about that using a concept that my colleague at Minnesota, Roozbeh Shirazi, describes as I think “the violence of hospitality.” And that, I think, is emblematic of a lot of work in international development. Let us help you to do what we think is a problem even if that’s not your problem. So, I thought about that situation. That chapter is called Spoons, Strikes and Schooling because there was a student strike later on that year because of the bad conditions at the school for the students. And it’s really kind of a good example of what has troubled me over the years about international development, even though I’ve also been involved in development projects.
Will Brehm 29:07
I mean, so your work reflecting back on your own personal experiences in Tanzania and your research in Tanzania over a few decades. Have you thought about any sort of larger critiques about the development industry itself that you’ve both researched and been a part of for so long?
Frances Vavrus 29:27
Yes, there are a number of critiques that I have made in previous works. So, I’m not going to replay those here. But two strike me as especially important, and I think these are more lessons learned, that also serve perhaps as critique. And one of them has to do with time. It takes a long time to build relationships, and relationships are the way through which we generate more meaningful knowledge. So, the short-term consultancy work that many of us have engaged in or many people engage in frequently has its place. But that’s not the kind of knowledge generation that I think is most important because it leads to rather superficial understanding. And even after living in this community on several occasions and continuing to work there and have close relationships, there’s still so much I know I don’t understand. Yet, I hope this book is an illustration of how long-term relationships can provide insights into the lived experiences of policy, the lived experiences of schooling, the uncertainties that plague people’s lives in a way that I think someone who has spent three weeks in Tanzania would not be able to understand. And the second lesson is one that I’ve taken from James Ferguson’s work. He wrote a book called The Expectations of Modernity. I think that’s right. And in that book, he describes what he calls “development in reverse.” And I think this is a way of questioning the assumption of linearity in international development and in development studies more broadly. We assume that progress, development, is linear. That once you reach a certain stage, then inevitably you’ll reach a next highest stage and so forth until you reach this end point, which ironically, looks like the United States. And I say that very sarcastically. But development isn’t linear. I think about the experiences this past year of living through a pandemic. Massive unemployment, 510,000 deaths just in the United States, political upheaval, the rise of fascism, nationalism. These are things that aren’t supposed to happen once a country reaches a certain stage of development. So, if we think about development as being precarious, as being uncertain, I think that it helps us to be cautious about our declarations about the accomplishments of development and even the potential for schooling to make certain any kind of progress.
Will Brehm 32:10
Well, Fran Vavrus, thank you so much for joining FreshEd again, it’s always a pleasure to talk, and congratulations on your new book.
Frances Vavrus 32:16
Thank you so much, Will.
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Related Guest Publications/Projects
Schooling as uncertainty: An ethnographic memoir in comparative education
Teaching in tension: International pedagogies, national policies, teachers’ practices in Tanzania
Adjusting inequality: Education and structural adjustment policies in Tanzania
Education for self-reliance – Julius Nyerere
Cruel Optimism – Lauren Berlant
Modernity at large – Arjun Appadurai
The Anti-politics machine – James Ferguson
The vulnerable observer: Anthropology that breaks your heart – Ruth Beher
Between hosts and guests: Conditional hospitality and citizenship in an American suburb – Roozbeh Shirazi
Expectations of Modernity – James Ferguson
Postcolonialism and development
Development theory and practice: Critical perspectives
Critical development theory: Results and prospects
Alternative globalizations: Critical globalization studies
When projects of ‘empowerment’ don’t liberate – Roozbeh Shirazi
Inclusive aid: changing power and relations in international development
Have any useful resources related to this show? Please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org