When I was an undergraduate at the University of Virginia, the fake major that everyone joked about was underwater basketweaving. I suspect there is a similar joke on every college campus, but I was surprised when Rick Scott, the governor of Florida, suggested that anthropology is a woo-woo field.
There's been a quick and passionate response from anthropologists and journalists around the web, including from the American Anthropological Association, Mother Jones, and the University of South Florida's anthropology department. A great smattering of links can be found on Daniel Lende's blog Neuroanthropology - Dr. Lende is an anthropology professor at USF.
What's coming out of this uproar - other than the realization that Rick Scott continues to show how smarmy and undereducated he is every time he opens his mouth - is that anthropologists are being given another wake-up call to make our field relevant. Some of us are trying to address the problem of lack of understanding of anthropology as a field by being public anthropologists: active on Twitter, blogging, sharing information on Facebook groups like BioAnthropology News. But as John Hawks points out in his excellent Anthropologies Project essay "What's wrong with anthropology?" we can do a whole lot more to fix the state of our discipline.
In my introductory anthropology courses, I address the importance of anthropology to today's college students at the beginning and the end of the semester. First and foremost, the focus of anthropology is on understanding yourself in relation to others. This may sound pretty simple, but it involves critically thinking about why you do what you do, why others do what they do, and what factors affect these actions: e.g., religion, economy, biology, politics, family structure, gender, ethnicity, etc. While we tend to deal with individuals in our line of work, we're also interested in the community - the commonalities in experience at various scales.
That's all well and good, you might say, but what skills do students learn in an anthropology course? Don't they just learn how to throw around adjectivized names like Foucauldian and Marxist? I tell my students - and then demonstrate as best as possible throughout the semester - that anthropologists do learn several key skills:
- We learn clear, precise record-keeping skills and have to be attentive to detail. You have to observe what people say (and what they don't say), what they do (and what they don't do), what their bones or bodies tell you.
- Anthropologists also learn analytical reading and critical thinking skills: how to read between the lines of a text, to question an author's or speaker's biases and the cultural context in which their ideas were formed. Thinking critically means questioning one's own biases in addition to those of others.
- We also learn how to deal with unfamiliar social situations - we learn new languages and new rules for communication with people from all over the world, and we do this through participation in addition to observation so that we can understand where someone else is coming from.
The majority of my undergraduate students, particularly in the large lecture courses, will go into one of three main occupational spheres after graduation: health and medicine (doctors, nurses, genetics research, allied health fields, etc.), business and economics, and teaching (from preschool to PhDs). Anthropology is useful to all of these fields:
- Medicine - The health professions aren't just about biology or chemistry or pharmacology. For example, is your African-American patient more likely to suffer hypertension because of his genetics or because of his diet? Anthropologists have tackled questions like these, with our dual emphases on biology and culture.
- Business - You can crunch numbers in econ classes, but it only helps you predict what will happen under certain economic conditions. It is equally important to understand how individuals and cultures deal with money, for example, or how they react to global developments that have lasting effects on the way they see the world and act within it. Future business people can learn about the global economy and people's place within it through anthropology.
- Teaching - This field isn't just about imparting facts for students to learn. A good teacher is attuned to a classroom that has seen many changes over the last few decades. My parents' generation was in high school when integration happened - and teachers are even today dealing with a pedagogical legacy that excludes certain ethnic or racial groups or is prejudiced against them. Today's teachers think long and hard about how to convey information in the best possible way, how to use multimedia, how to engage students who take different approaches to learning, how to remedy old curricula that focus largely on DWMs - dead white males. Future teachers can also benefit from understanding the main tenets of anthropology in designing lessons, engaging in instruction, and communicating with students and their parents.
I didn't learn until I was in college about all the other cultures, and I should have learned that in the first grade. A first grader should understand that his or her culture isn't a rational invention; that there are thousands of other cultures and they all work pretty well; that all cultures function on faith rather than truth; that there are lots of alternatives to our own society. Cultural relativity is defensible and attractive. It's also a source of hope. It means we don't have to continue this way if we don't like it.Anthropology is a science, and Rick Scott's insistence that it be set apart from STEM fields shows that he fundamentally misunderstands what we do. Part of that is our fault, though, and we need to figure out ways to make anthropology more relevant. We don't have to continue this way if we don't like it.