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Don't Know Much About History, Don't Know Much Anthropology...

In Defense of Learning: Anthropology vs. Politicians

Anthropology has been in the news for the last couple of weeks. Unfortunately, the inspiration for press coverage came from a political cheap shot using "anthropology" as a metaphor for "useless knowledge."

On October 11, Florida media reported that Governor Rick Scott had put anthropologists on his "hit list." The quote that roused the nation's anthropologists came in the form of an extraordinary quote:

"How many more jobs do you think there is for anthropology in this state? Do you want to use your tax dollars to educate more people who can't get jobs? In anthropology? I don't."

Now, the logic behind this personal dismissal of anthropology was somewhat murky. Reporters said the governor was arguing that somehow, eliminating a discipline from state universities would keep tuition low:

"Do we need to do all those programs, rather than the first thing is we've got to raise tuition every year?"

But this ignores the fact that state university tuitions are rising throughout the country to cover deficits created by state governments withdrawing funding, then cynically railing against the urgent need to raise tuition created by politics.

The revelation that Scott has a daughter with an anthropology degree from William and Mary prompted a lot of jokes, and a somewhat hard to fathom comment from her father, who claimed to "love anthropology degrees."

Professional societies, from forensics to archaeology to the American Anthropological Association, refuted the argument in open letters to the ill-informed parent-of-an-anthropologist.

Anthropologists reveled in a grass-roots response from Florida anthropology students testifying to the value of their degree and the importance of their work to the state.

Perhaps the most effective response came from the actual projection for employment of anthropologists from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, that Daniel Lende of the excellent Neuroanthropology blog explained shows "much faster than the average" growth expected through 2018:

Anthropologists and archaeologists, the largest specialty, is expected to grow by 28 percent, driven by growth in the management, scientific, and technical consulting services industry.

Anthropologists who work as consultants will be needed to apply their analytical skills and knowledge to problems ranging from economic development to forensics. A growing number of anthropologists also will be needed in specific segments of the Federal Government, such as the U.S. Department of Defense, to assess the regional customs and values--or "cultural terrain"--of a particular society in specific parts of the world.

Employment growth of archaeologists will be driven by higher levels of overall construction, including large-scale transportation projects and upgrades to the Nation's infrastructure. As construction projects increase, more archaeologists will be needed to ensure that Federal laws related to the preservation of archaeological and historical sites and artifacts are met.

As Lende emphasizes, the positive job outlook in anthropology is driven in large part by the participation of anthropology in the science and technology sector--the area that Governor Scott repeatedly calls on as his example of good, worthwhile education:

"I want to spend our dollars giving people science, technology, engineering, and math degrees. That's what our kids need to focus all their time and attention on, those types of degrees, so when they get out of school, they can get a job."

The Chancellor of Florida's state university system, Frank Brogan, was careful to note that anthropology actually qualifies as a STEM discipline.

All of which is wonderful. I want people to know that anthropology majors get jobs: that they are all over in the world around you, doing things you may not suspect anthropology prepares you to do.

But I found myself wishing we did not have to accept the framing of the issue provided by the governor of Florida, who clearly used anthropology as a non-random example in what in fact is a more profound attack on the idea of the university, and particularly of the liberal arts. As The New York Times noted in a higher education blog, Scott's remarks were echoed by a state senator who singled out psychology and political science as "degrees that don’t mean much" that the state should not be asked to support.

Anthropology is not the only victim here: It is the whole idea of learning that seems to be at risk in arguments like this.

Anthropologist Paul Stoller calls attention to this on the Huffington Post:

If we eliminate the liberal arts and humanities from public university curricula, we will produce a generation of uncritical technocrats who will have lost their sense of wonder, their feeling of intellectual passion and their capacity to dream about life beyond the boundaries of the limited good. In such a passionless and unimaginative space, we will lose our capacity to think, grow and reconfigure a rapidly changing world.

Daniel Lende, again, sharpens the point, asking anthropologists:

What do you think about this tactic of using jobs as the sole calculus for measuring the value of a discipline? Should anthropologists be completely focused on producing jobs, or are there other elements that matter in a valuable and worthwhile education? What about the value of teaching students how to think critically and holistically about the world around them?


It is wonderful--wonderful, let me repeat--to see anthropologists (and others!) rise up to defend the social contributions made by our discipline, with its span from the biological sciences to historical knowledge production in my own subfield of archaeology, with ethnographic work guiding and critiquing foreign policy, medicine, environmental management, social justice, and income inequality. That there are jobs out there for people with anthropology degrees beyond the tenure track should never need to be clarified again. Bravo!

But, maybe it is time for us to counter-attack and resist the economic logic that threatens to take away training in the use of our greatest human distinction: Our minds.

Social anthropologist Michael Herzfeld is the author of a popular textbook on social and cultural anthropology that I like to use. In the Preface to that book, he says anthropology:

Might best--and not a little mischievously--be defined as the comparative study of common sense, both in its cultural forms and its social effects.

He argues for the value of anthropology as:

A model for critical engagement with the world, rather than as a distanced and magisterial explanation of the world.

Herzfeld argues that anthropology promises a "militant middle ground" and calls for us to:

Capitalize on the discipline's peculiar capacity for critical insight on the human condition and its interpretation, and to recognize that some of the dominant binarisms of modern rhetoric--that pitting science against the humanities, for example--may reflect political actuality but offer little help otherwise in deciphering the lived, experienced, and socially engaging world we inhabit.

He offers that anthropology:

Is above all a call to seize reality by rejecting any single, dominant representation of what constitutes Reality.

So yes, it is great that we can falsify Rick Scott's argument that anthropology degrees don't translate into jobs.

But I want to claim something more: Even if every anthropology major in the country ended up working in some field unrelated to the discipline itself, the training anthropology gives in reasoning, in questioning what is known and certain, is the most valuable thing about being an anthropology student or scholar.

"The comparative study of common sense" might even have told Governor Scott to check whether what he thought was self-evident Reality was in fact part of Florida's or the nation's reality.

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