Remembering what higher education is all about

What’s the whole point of higher education? The word education, which is based on the words educe and educere, means to ‘lead forth or bring out’. That’s a pretty noble purpose and gives dignity and meaning to the work we do in higher education, whether as an educator, an administrator, a policy-maker or other roles in education. Sign me up!

Reflecting on this made me think of all the great teachers I’ve had the pleasure of studying with, and one in particular stands out – Alan Dundes, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley. He was the best teacher I’ve ever had and the lessons I learned in his class are still useful today.

His field? Folklore. It’s the study of people and cultures, particularly the beliefs and values of various groups that are expressed in rituals, myths, sayings, rhymes, games, art, customs, festivals and jokes (among other things).

According to Dundes, the ‘folk’ in folklore is any group that has something in common, whether it is gender, race, geography, vocation, language, family, hair colour etc – or a combination of the above.

To be considered folklore, it must manifest multiple existence – it must exist in more than one place and time and there must be at least two versions. For example, there are multiple versions of hopscotch, ‘okay’ gestures and endings to the ‘a rabbi, a priest and a pastor go into a bar’ joke. Much of folklore has been orally transmitted through the years, and increasingly it is being spread via the internet.

Warning: A lot of folklore is decidedly not politically correct. In fact, some of it can be quite offensive.

We heard a lot of stories, myths and jokes in class – and the class was definitely not politically correct. If there is an ‘ism’ out there or something a group has difficulty discussing openly, there’s quite a lot of folklore about it. Why? Because it allows people to express what they believe or value, as well as release some of their anxiety.

And that was part of the beauty of the class – Dundes shared a lot of myths, rhymes, gestures, jokes and rituals with us and got a lot of laughter or ‘ewwws’ from the students – and then we analysed the item and interpreted it to better understand why we had that reaction. Analysing various types of folklore allowed us to discuss some uncomfortable topics.

Dundes made us think beyond the words, gestures and rituals to what a group was actually saying about themselves – and others. No one who took his class will ever forget his Freudian analysis of Luke Skywalker destroying the Death Star or his very controversial interpretation of the rituals of football (see below).

For a quick lesson on the ritual of number three in American society (as well our fixation on the future and a lot of funny aphorisms) have a look at his 2002 UC Berkeley Commencement address.

One of his classes was about the rituals surrounding the Palio in Siena, Italy – much of which is in his book La Terra in Piazza. When I later went to see the Palio, I understood not just what was happening, but why. It is so much more than a horse race.

Folklore is context-specific and open to interpretation – and different groups interpret things differently. There’s a great example of this when Dundes tells a ‘A priest and a nun go golfing one day’ joke in a talk he gave at the Commonwealth Club. It is about 55 minutes into the one-hour talk when he tells how men and women responded differently to the joke – and interpreted the underlying meaning quite differently.

In a 2005 interview, when asked whether he had to be careful when talking about his interpretations of various forms of folklore, Dundes said: “That’s okay. I’m at Berkeley. We can say what we want here. There’s free speech here. We had to fight for it.”

I wonder if that’s still true today. He did mention in the interview that for one of his writings, “Into the Endzone for a Touchdown: A psychoanalytic consideration of American football”, he received death threats and people called for him to be fired.

Dundes died in 2005 and UC Berkeley, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and the American Folklore Society all did great obituaries.

I see that the class I took, Forms of Folklore, is still being taught at ‘Cal’ and I wonder what he would make of the world today.

He’d probably remind us that the jokes we tell are a (somewhat) socially acceptable way to release anxiety – and that folklore is context-specific. So, what’s funny to one group will decidedly not be funny to the other. You can see this in the ‘Dear Red States’ letter that made the rounds in the past few presidential elections (and the ‘Dear Blue States – A Reply from the Red States’ letter), Brexit humour, natural disaster jokes, the Pepe (and other) memes, T-shirt slogans and other items.

He was a fabulous instructor – students worked quite hard in the class and enjoyed every minute of it. It was the best type of learning. So much of what he taught in class has come back to me in terms of understanding people and cultures – and I have built on these learnings over the years and continue to use them to this day.

There are a few items that you might want to watch or read, if you’re interested in Alan Dundes’ work:

Thank you, Professor Dundes.

Margaret Andrews is an academic leader, instructor and consultant. Academic leadership positions have included vice-provost at Hult International Business School, where she managed a global academic team across five campuses in four countries, associate dean of management programmes at Harvard University’s Division of Continuing Education, and executive director of the MBA programme at the MIT Sloan School of Management. She teaches a variety of leadership, creativity and strategy courses at Harvard and is also the managing director of Mind and Hand Associates, a boutique consulting firm serving a global higher education clientele. You can reach her at


Because more often than not, from where I am, HEIs have become a mere factory of skilled workers and enslaved by TNCs.

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