A sociologist by training, Hugh (“Bud”) Mehan has made important contributions to the anthropology of schooling, particularly with regard to language use and the construction of students’ academic identities. He has published on topics as diverse as the scaling up of school reform, the pedagogical use of computers, and the discourse of the nuclear arms race, but he is best known for his critical analyses of ability grouping (“tracking”), whereby schools segregate students on the basis of their (supposedly innate) academic talent. As director of the Center for Research on Educational Equity, Access, and Teaching Excellence (CREATE) at the University of California, San Diego, he has applied his research findings to improving the education of underserved groups through initiatives in teacher education and university partnerships with K-12 schools.
A substantial amount of educational research has been dedicated to evaluating the effectiveness of tracking and devising appropriate pedagogies for variously tracked students, but relatively little has questioned the processes by which students are assigned to the academic categories that effectively define their futures. During the latter half of the 20th century, anthropologists and other social critics began to question the institutional practices that relegated disproportionate numbers of African American, immigrant, and low-income students to lower academic tracks. Ethnographic studies revealed that low-tracked students also tended to receive a lower quality of instruction, with fewer opportunities for academic and intellectual development and little chance of mobility within the academic hierarchy. Rather than taking academic evaluations of students’ intellectual abilities at face value, Mehan and other scholars sought alternative explanations for the ethnic and economic stratification that is manifest in the distribution of “ability groups.”
While numerous critics of tracking have cited possible cultural bias in academic testing, Mehan focused on the school’s construction of academic identities, such as “the competent student,” “the learning-disabled student,” and “the genius,” and examined the institutional processes by which various educational actors (e.g., teachers, parents, counselors, administrators) collectively assign academic identities and future trajectories to individual students.
As a remedy for the social and educational inequities perpetuated by tracking, Mehan and his colleagues proposed “untracking,” that is, providing all students with the same academically demanding curriculum while giving underserved students the institutional scaffolding and support they need to navigate the school’s “hidden curriculum.” Mehan argues that by intellectually challenging all students and engaging them in critical reflection on their own schooling, previously marginalized students can transition to college successfully without sacrificing their cultural identities. Employing techniques of ethnography, ethnomethodology, and discourse analysis, he has analyzed educational practice in terms of cultural representations. However, his work is not limited to theoretical formulations of identity construction. Rather, he engages the practical consequences of both tracking and untracking for students’ educational careers.
Mehan’s work on large-scale school reform, although broader in scope than his fine-grained classroom studies, shares the same concern for applying the theoretical insights of anthropology to the concrete goal of improving students’ life chances. His analysis of the discourse of the nuclear arms race likewise manifests his commitment to social justice and the critical deconstruction of “official” representations of society.
Mehan is a member of the National Academy of Education and the recipient of various teaching awards. He has served on the executive council of the American Anthropological Association and as vice president and president of the Council on Anthropology and Education as well as on the editorial boards of numerous journals on language use and educational research, including the Anthropology and Educational Quarterly.
- Mehan, H. (1993). Beneath the skin and between the ears: A case study in the politics of representation. In S. Chaiklin & J. Lave (Eds.), Understanding practice: Perspectives on activity and context (pp. 241-268). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. (Reprinted in A. U. L. Bradley et al. (Eds.). (2000). Schooling the symbolic animal. Boulder, CO: Rowman & Littlefield)
- Mehan, H., Hertweck, A., & Meihls, J. L. (1986). Handicapping the handicapped: Decision making in students’ educational careers. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
- Mehan, H., Villanueva, I., Hubbard, L., & Lintz, A. (1996). Constructing school success: The consequences of placing low achieving students in high track classes. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.