By now there are many responses to Rick Scott’s desire to cut anthropology funding in favor STEM (science, technology, enigneering, and medecine) because ‘there are no jobs for anthropologists': that anthropology is STEM; that there is increasing demand for anthropologists; that anthropologists do important work; that there are no jobs for STEM graduates either; that its not smart to train people now for a future job market which will have different demands; and that executive tinkering could ruin the state’s univerisites, which are a major part of the state’s economy. These are all good responses, but I think there is another one that it is important to make: in America, we believe our education system should produce citizens, not workers.
The ‘liberal arts’ are called that for a reason: they are the skills and ideas that are appropriate for free people. Back in ancient Rome that meant: people who are not slaves. Today it means: people who have the skills necessary to govern themselves and undertake the collective effort of steering our republic.
Education for citizenship is a unique challenge because the world is a uncertain place, and solving the problems we face as a country is not like learning a recipe or performing rote work. Who knew on September 10th, 2001 that terrorism rather than economic globalization would shape our future? Who in 2008 could predict that domestic economic policy rather than foreign policy would come back into focus? In a world where our lives are open to fortune, citizens need to learn how to think, not what to think — and that is the heart of a liberal arts education.
Anthropology is central to a liberal arts education for several reasons, the least of which is the empirical record of human behavioral diversity it provides and the way our unique fieldwork method cultivates the researcher’s ability to understand and imagine human life. But really, the problem is not proving that anthropology is worthwhile, it is helping people understand that our job as educators is to make human beings, not workers.
Of course, you don’t need to get a fancy degree to become a cultivated and intelligent person. After all, all of us know people who have got their degree from the school of hard knocks. In fact some of the smartest and most cultivated people I know are the men I’ve met in Papua New Guinea who have honed their skills of persuasion and politics through endless years of pig exchanges, marriages, and peace-making ceremonies — people so astute that they put our current crop of US politicians to shame, but who have never learned to read or even pick up a pen or pencil.
Nevertheless, a college education is uniquely valuable in today’s world because the type of learning it provides is especially suited to our form of democratic governance. But don’t take it from me, take it from one of the founders of our country: Thomas Jefferson.
Thomas Jefferson believed in state-funded higher education because he thought an educated citizenry was central to democracy. “wherever the people are well informed,” he wrote Richard Price in 1789, “they can be trusted with their own government; that whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them to rights.” It is for this reason that he wanted students at UVA to study everything from botany to Greek literature to the fine arts — a liberal education which would “form them to habits of reflection and correct action, rendering them examples of virtue to others and of happiness within themselves.”
Jefferson was also, incidentally, the first American anthropologist. Although we had no degrees by that name to give away at the time, his written works such as the Notes On The State of Virginia are widely considered (or were, when I was educated) to be the first examples of anthropology’s holistic, particularistic viewpoint. Excavating fossils and making notes on the climate, soil, and lifestyle of the people of the state, Jefferson was an early proponent of four-field anthropology.
You can read his notes and a summary of his ethnological opinions online for free because they have been made open for access to all because in America we believe the diffusion of knowledge to be a good in itself — something else we have to thank Thomas Jefferson for. In this way anyone can chose to educate themselves about our country’s past — something that Rick Scott may not have had an opportunity to do when he was in college.
Once upon a time, we called people ‘conservative’ because they were trying to conserve our traditional values. These days it is the defenders of the liberal arts, the ‘liberals’ and ‘progressives’ who must remind them what our country used to stand for: liberty and progress.
One last thing: the funny thing about producing people who are free to think for themselves is that they can do a lot of other things to: learn new job skills, start new businesses, or even invent new industries. Holding fast to your values and doing what is important, rather than what is urgent, often has unexpected and gratifying consequences. It is for this reason that Thomas Jefferson thought that “knowledge is power, that knowledge is safety, that knowledge is happiness.”