Higher Education Among the Nacirema[1]

Reed M. N. Weep[2]


Since I have already confessed in a previous article that I am a member of the American Association of University Professors, I might as well let the other shoe drop‑I also am a regular reader of the AAUP's journal The Ivory Tower. Now, ordinarily I would keep such bizarre behavior to myself, but I have decided to come right out with it in this column, because there is a puzzling trend that I have noticed in recent issues of The Ivory Tower. That otherwise estimable rag betrays a surprising ethnocentricism. Hardly a number goes by that does not contain some triumphalist assertion about the glories of the American system of higher education. These assertions are generally hidden within sentences which superficially appear to be about something else altogether. For instance, a recent defense of academic job security included a sentence that read something like "We must be careful to protect tenure, a practice which has made American universities the envy of academics around the world." [The lawyers of The Ivory Tower should note the quotation marks around that last sentence. Translated they mean: I was too lazy to actually try to find the sentence in question, so I just made one up.] And there is that old gray mare "academic freedom," which is said to be "the cornerstone of the world's greatest university system." I have become suspicious about this orgy of self‑congratulation. Who says that college professors around the world are anxiously ogling American universities? Where is the empirical evidence? Unwilling to accept rash generalizations, I decided to investigate this problem further. For, ask anyone and they will tell you, "Reed Weep is a man of science."


Specifically I decided to do fieldwork among the Nacirema, whose repugnant body rituals were so painstakingly described by Horace Miner some forty years ago. What kind of institutions of higher education do we find in their villages, and how do they stack up against our own? These are the questions that I seek to answer in this column.


Consistent with the confessional tone in much recent anthropological writing, I must admit from the outset that this column would have been impossible without the assistance of my chief native informant, Deer. With dark, penetrating eyes, Deer is a middle aged teacher in one of the Nacirema schools called an egelloc. Having instructed several generations of the initiates, each of whom is known among the faculty informally as a niap,


Deer has risen to the exalted social status of a kind of elder known as a cossa. Yet he has the weary air of someone who has encountered too many niaps who had not memorized the tribal lore because they had consumed too much of the popular malt beverage reeb.  Despite his insouciance, Deer was a knowledgeable guide to the traditional system of education among the Nacirema, giving generously of his time and insight. His name, by the way, is doubtless a reference to some totem ancestor, though when I asked him to confirm my theory on this point a wry smile was all the reply I received.


In his important book, Dig Those Hippies, the renowned author Victor Turner noted that trial by ordeal is a major component of iniatory training in many cultures, and the same is true for the Nacirema. In their egellocs the initiates are periodically subjected to a ritualized form of torture known as the tset. The elders maintain that the purpose of these exercises is to determine how well the niaps have mastered the traditional lore of the tribe. However, the initiates themselves reported to me that the tsets were actually intended to humiliate them, since they had not been exposed to any of that lore at the egelloc. No doubt the tset contributes to the communitas among the initiates in their collective despair, despite its sadistic character, or perhaps even because of it


In fact, the teachers in the Nacirema egellocs are hardly concerned with the training of the initiates, which they manage to toss off with considerable dispatch. Rather, their focus is on a desperate struggle for social status. The most concrete indication of their elaborate status hierarchy is a system known as krapping [no snickering, please], in which the big chiefs of each egelloc are flattered with desirable places to berth the expensive canoes which they paddle to the egelloc. There can be no doubt that the surest means to attain higher status in these institutions is through a complicated ritual involving sticks and small spherical stones which the Nacirema call flogging. Deer informed me that there are some poor teachers who think that they can climb up the status ladder by laboriously producing koobs, but, he added, no one really cares about them.


From time to time the elders of the Nacirema egellocs leave off what minimal instruction they impart to initiates to attend large gatherings called ecnerefnocs. Here status differentiation is once again paramount. At the bottom end of the pyramid are those who are forced to spend the ecnerefnoc in a small pen known as the tnemecalp retnec, which reminds the visiting American of nothing so much as a funeral home, since the Nacirema there must wear somber costumes and glum expressions while milling about silently. The elders of middling status spend the ecnerefnoc rushing from one room to another to observe a ritualized form of combat in which the competitors try to outdo each other at chanting in a rapid‑fire monotone. I should point out as a footnote to Miner's earlier study of the Nacirema that there are public shrine rooms at the ecnerefnocs like the private home bathing shrines which he described. They are much visited by the ritual actors and audience between these oratorical competitions. It is interesting to note that the big men of the egellocs would not be caught dead attending one of the contests. Rather, they spend all of their time in dimly lit rooms called rabs consuming prodigious quantities of the aforementioned reeb and another fermented beverage called nig, while discussing krapping in hushed tones.


In this brief survey I have only been able to scratch the surface in describing the strange but fascinating world of the traditional Nacirema educational system. Still I must break off that description to rejoin Bronislaw Malinowski on the verandah of the planter's bungalow for a whiskey and soda. In Magic, Science and Religion and Other Essays, Malinowski wrote:


I do, however, want to emphasize the fact that anthropology should not only be the study of savage custom in light of our mentality and culture, but also the study of our mentality in the distant perspective borrowed from Stone Age man.


And that has been precisely my goal in this column. Clearly, the Nacirema egellocs are educational institutions in name only. They do not successfully impart learning to the initiates, which is the primary reason why Nacirema culture is so backward. So, the contributors to The Ivory Tower can rest easy knowing that they are a part of the ne plus ultra in higher education.


[1] Reproduced with permission from the Bulletin of the CSSR, vol. 28 no. 2 (1999) 4546.


[2] Ed. note: An associate professor at a large midwestern university and a regular contributor to the bulletin, Reed M. N. Weep is the author of the radical vegetarian manifesto Human Soup for the Chicken's Soul, forthcoming from Furismurder Press.