Folklore Essay

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Folklore refers to a dimension of culture comprised of traditional forms—including verbal art, material culture, belief, music, dance, and visual art—expressed by individuals in performance. Though definitions vary according to purpose and use, U.S. folklorist Dan Ben-Amos’s 1972 definition of folklore as “artistic communication in small groups” is basic to the discipline as it has developed in the United States since the 1950s.

Folklore is passed from person to person (whether directly or mediated), with artistic communication encompassing both aesthetic and ethical, relational dimensions. Grandparents tell histories to grandchildren that they will not read in textbooks. Aunts teach jump-rope rhymes as well as taunts to nieces. Children exchange jokes and street knowledge. Experienced teachers transmit both time-tested advice and well-honed biases to new colleagues. Parents exhort children about “the way we do things.” Community experts share techniques ranging from gardening to grassroots political action. And politicians call forth popular responses by fitting contemporary persons and events into traditional generic forms. All of this involves folklore. This entry looks at general folklore concepts; the ways folklore is used in education, including a historical review; and the contemporary scene.


Folklore consists of the concrete, verbal, auditory, kinetic, and behavioral artifacts that can be described as instantiations of any group’s culture. People use folklore to connect to their past, but also as resources to accomplish particular goals through performance and communication in present social settings.

For those seeking to apply folklore and folkloristic research to fields of education, particularly salient and prevalent definitions of folklore describe it as “people’s knowledge” and “noninstitutional”— though it is recognized that folklore can also be coopted and used to promote antidemocratic, politically institutionalized goals.

In 1938, the Progressive scholar-activist Benjamin Botkin, who was national folklore editor of the Depression era Federal Writers Project, usefully defined folklore as a body of traditional belief, custom, and expression passed down by word of mouth outside of commercial and academic communications. This definition serves to highlight the expression and authority of folklore as existing independent of both popular and elite dominant culture as it is perpetuated through the mass media and schools.

At the same time, however, folklore can be used and spread through the media and schools in order to bolster the authority of officials and to lend credibility to their claims. The nature of folklore as separate from both popular culture and elite culture, as well as the way folklore has been used in popular and elite versions in order to create a sense of national identity, makes the discipline of folklore a useful complement to the disciplinary approaches more widely used in the study of the social and cultural foundations of education.

Folklore In Education

The work of folklorists in education can be grouped into five approaches, four of which focus on how individuals communicate within, around, and despite dominating cultural institutions, with the fifth focusing on helping students identify the use of folk belief by officials in the dominant culture in order to garner public approval.

One approach has been to study folklore in schools, that is, how students and teachers form folk groups and create culture independent of or despite official culture. A second approach, developed initially as part of a broader response to the misrepresentations of cultural deprivation theory, has been to use folklore of students and their communities as texts within the curriculum. A third approach has been exemplified by the Folk Arts in Education (FAIE) and Folk Arts in Schools (FAIS) programs, which involve both bringing traditional artists into schools as authoritative teachers and training students as competent fieldworkers and researchers. A fourth approach has been analyzing folk genres as critiques of, or alternative models to, institutionalized elite and popular genres.

Finally, the fifth approach involves students in analyzing politicians’ and other leaders’ rhetoric to identify legends and other expressions of belief presented as truth. This approach problematizes the idea of “folk” as being marginal and highlights the fact that all groups, including those with institutional power, rely on shared beliefs and communicative resources in order to create a sense of shared identity among their members.

Useful Elements Of Folkloristic Theory

Folklore’s original author is “anonymous,” and even if thought to be known, the identity of an individual supposed to have originated a particular form is inconsequential, as folkloristic knowledge is powerful because it is both collectively known and dynamically transformed. Folklore is often performed by specialists within the group: The key is that it always changes and exists in variations, and people learn to use it in variable and changeable ways, in daily interaction as well as in specialized settings. Tradition—usually defined as continuous existence through time or across space—has been important in describing folklore, although in the last fifty years theorists have also emphasized the creativity exercised by individuals in using traditional forms for new purposes as well as the dubious project of “inventing traditions” to justify social entitlements and political projects.

Essential to its nature, folklore has no prototypical, authoritative, or “right” version and cannot be codified. Furthermore, true folklore cannot be reproduced exactly; rather, each reiteration involves re-creation and therefore creative change on the part of the individual producing it. U.S. folklorist Barre Toelken coined the “twin laws” of folklore as tradition and dynamic innovation, with tradition being preexisting, culture-specific, but not static materials, and dynamic innovation being the inevitable and energizing changes resulting in each performance of the tradition by each individual. As a result, all folklore exists in “multiple nonstandard variations.”

Consider the game hide-and-seek. The traditional aspect of this piece of folklore is that people hide and are found. The dynamic, nonstandard variation, however, includes much more: Who is “it,” or are there multiple “its”? Is the goal to race to a “home” to be “home free,” or is the goal to be the last one found? How high does “it” count to allow the others to hide, and what does “it” say when “it” is about to begin searching? Are there boundaries within which hiders must stay? While the game is traditional around the world, the essence of the game resides in the variations, which arise from individual creativity, collective compromise, and adaptation of the basic form to be appropriate for the setting and participants involved.

“Folk culture” stands in contrast to “elite culture” (those behaviors and forms having capital in dominant culture institutions) and to “popular culture” (behaviors learned and forms promulgated through corporations and mass marketing), though culture is fluid and moves between these categories as folk culture is co-opted and commoditized (e.g., graffiti becomes fine art and ingredients in willow bark become aspirin), or popular or elite culture is used in traditional, creative ways (e.g., soft drink cans are recycled into toy airplanes, or high art is spoofed in burlesques).

Emerging in the 1970s, “performance theory” centers attention on how individuals draw on communicative resources (i.e., traditional texts of the community) to perform them in particular social settings for particular purposes. Important analytic questions include which members of the community are recognized as having the authority to “take” texts from their traditional, authoritative settings and to re-create them in different social settings in order to meet their own particular social goals. Key questions relevant to folklore in schools are: Who has the authority, in a given social setting, to decontextualize and recontextualize (i.e., to perform) a given text? Who decides if the performance is legitimate, authoritative, or “good”?

Historical Review

Eighteenth And Nineteenth Century Roots

Though now international in scope, the discipline of folklore has its roots in antiquarian and nationalistic movements of eighteenth-century Europe. As avocational scholars of the privileged classes, in reaction to the rise of Rationalism, joined in romanticizing primitive society across Europe, Johann Gottfried Herder gathered Volkslieder (folksongs) as the spiritual voice of das Volk, in the hope of codifying “the cultural heart and soul of a nation,” and thus elevating the idea of “peoplehood” to the basis for political movements, a philosophy and method that influenced nation builders across Europe as well as to the new United States.

  1. F. S. Grundtvig, a nineteenth-century Dane, seems to have been the first to argue explicitly that folk-life, as essential to the nation’s welfare, should be promoted by teachers in formal schooling. Grundtvig led an educational reform that resulted in the folk high school movement, as well as revitalization of trade schools and adult education including handicraft. At the end of the nineteenth century, the folk arts movement took hold in some elite schools in the United States.

Professionalization And The Progressive Era

At turn of the twentieth century in the United States, Progressive reformers idealized folk culture as a challenge to emerging industrial capitalist society, and following the Arts and Crafts movement begun by William Morris and his followers, held that preindustrial work processes and handicrafts could effect social and cultural change. A cultural nationalism drawing upon work of ballad collectors in the Appalachian region developed, based largely on romanticizing the colonial past and downplaying diversity and the impact of immigration. This move, however, was not uncontested: Though epitomized in such institutions as Henry Ford’s new Greenfield Village, it was challenged by a plethora of “Homelands Exhibits” and international festivals highlighting the richness of immigrant culture.

Within the Progressive education movement, proponents of social efficiency worked to divide control of schools from their communities, with reformers attacking this “rural school problem,” while at the same time expressing nostalgia for disappearing ways of life. Social efficiency proponents erased individual and community traditions in their desire to standardize, and in this way equalize, educational opportunity. As African Americans and immigrants learned through schooling to be ashamed of their differences, some Progressive reformers began to examine the lack of fit between groups and schools, to question how schools damaged family and community culture.

Such views were actualized in folkloristic projects including Jane Addams’s Hull House, where art shows included both elite art borrowed from museums; workers’ art documenting their homelands as well as their current predicament; Lucy Sprague Mitchell’s work at the Bureau for Educational Experiments (later, Bank Street), taking New York students out into the city to explore the folk culture of their neighborhoods; and Dorothy Howard’s and others’ work making folklore accessible to schoolteachers.

Cultural Deprivation Theory And The Rise Of Folk Arts In Education

From the 1950s through the 1970s, explicit critiques of cultural deprivation theory as well as complementary work in education contributed to a continuing Progressive strain of schooling. As psychologists and sociologists promoted “cultural deprivation theory” as an improvement on biologically based theories explaining why some groups of people tended to be less successful in dominant culture schooling than did others, folklorists argued the flaws of such theory, drawing upon empirical studies of the folklore of marginalized groups, and explaining the dynamic between these noninstitutionalized, marginalized cultures and dominant, school culture.

Also at this time, prototypes to Folk Arts in Education (FAIE) emerged, as scholars promoted including lives of “undistinguished Americans” in curricula as essential to American culture. Officially Folk Artists in the Schools (FAIS) programs were established with funding from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1976, with the purpose of including a wider range of artists than those generally included in the more widely known Artists in Schools programs.

Contemporary Folklore And Education Efforts

Currently, FAIE programs are housed not only in schools, but also in libraries, museums, and community agencies, with the shared aim of humanistic understanding of individuals and social groups, through engaging students in close documentation and analysis of local culture. Folklorists have also recognized the inevitability of the standards movement and have produced comprehensive frameworks for folklore standards and integrated curricula.

Analysis of FAIE publications reveals five prevalent goals. First, FAIE programs help students and teachers learn to value their own and familiar individuals and groups and their vernacular, everyday artistic expressions: Typically, this is described as helping young people see that people can be creative artists outside of dominant culture institutions like museums and concert halls.

Second, this recognition plus the folklorist’s outsider perspective helps students see the value and importance of familiar heroes and local events, especially due to many programs’ focus on students’ families and neighbors in the context of history, politics, and economics. Common activities include visits to local workplaces, including mills and factories, with students prompted to examine how the dominant culture threatens local cultures.

Third, FAIE programs engage teachers and students in critically observing differences between elite and popular culture, and the folk culture of their own communities, thus helping students recognize their own “cultural capital” as equally authoritative to that sponsored by schools and the media.

Fourth, FAIE recenters authority outside of institutions. A central, though usually unstated, purpose of all FAIE curricula is challenging the exclusive legitimacy of official knowledge and thus challenging institutions to include truly heterogeneous authorities, bringing community knowledge into the classroom as authoritative, and community people in as teachers.

Finally, because FAIE projects are based on students’ participation in real learning situations outside the classroom, the work is inherently collaborative, connecting students in classrooms with people and organizations in larger community settings.

Folklorists working in education have created rich resources for use in schools; however, since these are often published through museums and government agencies, they are often difficult to find. Thus, folklorists continue to work to build relationships with those working primarily in schools in order to increase the impact of their work. Important resources for locating and obtaining both materials and the theoretical discussions that frame them include the online newsletter of the Folklore and Education Section of the American Folklore Society; the American Folklife Center’s online A Teacher’s Guide to Folklife Resources; and Paddy Bowman’s 2006 article, “Standing at the Crossroads of Folklore and Education,” which provides an excellent listing of online resources. In addition, C. A. Bowers’s work in ecojustice pedagogy provides an excellent framework and rationale for integrating folkloristic studies into social foundations curricula.


  1. American Folklife Center. (2006). A teacher’s guide to folklife resources for K–12 classrooms. Retrieved November 29, 2006, from
  2. American Folklore Society. (2006). What is folklore? Retrieved November 29, 2006, from http://www.afsnet. org/aboutfolklore/aboutFL.cfm
  3. Bauman, R., & Briggs, C. (1990). Poetics and performance as critical perspectives on language and social life. Annual Review of Anthropology, 19, 59–88.
  4. Becker, J. (1988). Revealing traditions: The politics of culture and community in America, 1888–1988. In J. Becker & B. Franco (Eds.), Folk roots, new roots: Folklore in American life (pp. 19–60). Lexington, MA: Museum of Our National Heritage.
  5. Ben-Amos, D. (1972). Toward a definition of folklore in context. In A. Paredes & R. Bauman (Eds.), Toward new perspectives in folklore (pp. 3–15). Austin: University of Texas Press for the American Folklore Society.
  6. Botkin, B. (1938). The folk and the individual: Their creative reciprocity. The English Journal, 27, 21–35.
  7. Bowers, C. (2001). How colleges of education package the myth of modernity. In S. Goodlad (Ed.), The last best hope: A democracy reader (pp. 207–215). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  8. Bowman, P. (2006). Standing at the crossroads of folklore and education. Journal of American Folklore, 119(471),66–79.
  9. Bronner, S. (2002). Folk nation: Folklore in the creation of American tradition. Wilmington, DE: American Visions.
  10. Hamer, L. (1999). Folklore in schools and multicultural education: Toward institutionalizing noninstitutional knowledge. Journal of American Folklore, 113(447), 44–69.
  11. Hamer, L. (1999). A folkloristic approach to understanding teachers as storytellers. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 12(4), 363–380.
  12. Haut, J. (1994). How can acting like a fieldworker enrich pluralistic education? In M. Jones (Ed.), Putting folklore to use (pp. 45–61). Lexington: University Press of Kentucky.
  13. Howard, D. (1950). Folklore in the schools. New York Folklore Quarterly, 6(2), 99–107.
  14. Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, B. (1983). An accessible aesthetic: The role of folk arts and the folk artist in the curriculum. New York Folklore, 9(3/4), 9–18.
  15. Rosenberg, J. (2004). Reflections on folklife and education: Is there a unified history of folklore and education? AFS Folklore and Education Section Newsletter. Retrieved September 13, 2006, from, sections/education/Spring2004

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