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Thursday, May 30, 2013

Our Liminal State

Our Liminal State

By Dr. Ryan Donlan
Assistant Professor
Department of Educational Leadership
Bayh College of Education
Indiana State University

In the field of anthropology, a liminal point is a developmental transition, a period of time after leaving one status and before entering another (Bennett deMarrais & LeCompte, 1999).  We can think of this as a time in which we’re not quite what we used to be, but not quite what we will become.  A few examples are noted:

Initiates in fraternal orders exist in liminal states.  So do brides on the day of their wedding before the actual ceremony; they are, in a sense, neither married nor single.  Student teachers are no longer students in the traditional sense, but not quite teachers either.  Their in-between state is a state of liminality. (Bennett deMarrais & LeCompte, 1999, p. 104).

When I think of liminal states, my thoughts turn conceptual, as I ask myself, “While in a liminal state, are we sandwiched relationally, in a fixed position after something and before something else, or are we traveling developmentally from something in the past, through the present, and toward our future?”  Reminds me of discussions I once had regarding the construct of “time,” with one of my favorite former professors of philosophy, Dr. L. Nathan Oaklander at the University of Michigan-Flint.

One thing is fairly clear to me: In a liminal state, the ground upon which we operate is unsettled.  I also would pose that it takes a bit of effort on our part to go from liminality toward whatever the next phase will be in our lives.

All that said – We are in a liminal state in education right now. 

In our current state, WE are situated after something and before something else and are traveling developmentally from the past, through the present, toward our future.  Our ground is unsettled. Regaining solid footing will take a certain degree of volition and responsibility for smart navigation. 
What is particularly interesting is that in moving through and eventually past our liminality, we have the autonomy to regress if we wish. We can just as easily move back from whence we came, even more easily than forward (contrasting it with the adolescence example, above). 
Maybe “education” has its own particular flavor of liminality. It is certainly “on us,” which way we go.

What is our liminal state?  In our profession, it is not a position midway between a focus on local demands and those of the state, nation, or world.  We have been in the latter since 1957’s Sputnik launch.  It is not a position between an era of accountability and one formerly without.  We’re currently up to our necks in it.  Our liminal state does not have us sandwiched between a manufacturing model with an agrarian calendar, and something that makes more sense.  In most cases, we’re still Horace Mann’s poster child.
I truly believe that our liminal state has to do with our centeredness as a profession.  The question pertaining would be, “Are we teaching-centered or learning-centered in our schools?” 

Where’s our bulls-eye? 

Ours is a state of liminality somewhere between a focus on what we serve up, and its result.  The following indicators are just a few examples that place us betwixt and between …

Those that show we are no longer focused so much on teaching:

Our understanding of a need to differentiate instruction for children;
The chipping away of job security for the incompetent;
Student learning, as a focal point of teacher and administrative evaluation;
Vertical and horizontal alignment of curriculum;
Hybrid models of instruction and school redesign;
Choice and competition – charters and vouchers.

            Those that show we’re not quite totally focused on learning:

The fact that differentiation is still limited to pedagogy;
A Euro-centric focus on test content and for that matter … teaching to the test;
Blaming “circumstance” (family, poverty, etc.) for lackluster achievement;
And most of all -- Treating learners in a way we would not want to be treated, ourselves.  Consider the following  

“Nowhere else is such a large group of noncriminals forced to remain in an institution for so long, a fact that makes children’s attitudes about their participation diverge markedly from that of adults” (Bennett deMarrais & LeCompte, 1999, p. 128).

… and …

“One need only watch the behavior of adult teachers in faculty meetings to question whether adults can be as quiet, sit as still, and listen as well as children are expected to do” (Bennett deMarrias & LeCompte, 1999, p. 246).

Regarding our liminality, the question then becomes, “When are we going to own our own potency and make a decision either to move backward nearer to teaching, or forward nearer to learning?” 

And … do we have the potency to move at all?


Bennett deMarrias, K. & LeCompte, M. D. (1999). The way schools work: A sociological analysis of education (3rd ed.).  New York, NY: Addison Wesley Longman, Inc.


The Memorial Day Weekend had Dr. Donlan reading books in a remote part of Michigan.  Liminality came to him as he was re-reading a text for a summer course.  As you enjoy your summer reading, please consider offering constructs of your own that can be shared in the Ed. Leadershop, as we would be most grateful for your contribution.  As always, you can contact Ryan Donlan at (812) 237-8624 or at  Thank you for your leadership and for your readership!

1 comment:

  1. the liminal state, that which exists between the past and the future, sounds like another term for the present. however, the present never really exists since everything immediately becomes the past - check your watch, see if it ever takes a break so that we can be in the present.
    thus, 'liminal' is a state of mind, ...a place we conceptually choose to be, perhaps an excuse.