Beyond Individual Choice: Student debt as a problem for all of us

The following post by Daniel Souleles is another installment of the Anthropologies issue on student debt.  Souleles is a PhD Student in Applied Anthropology at Columbia University. He has done field work with Catholic hermit monks and is currently studying private equity investors in New York City for his dissertation field work. He is interested in questions of belief, wealth, and value in the contemporary USA. He can be reached at:

As the not quite proud holder of around 100k in student debt, I’d like to offer a few different ways to think about debt, student debt, and a career in anthropology. The attention Savage Minds has been giving to student debt and paying for grad school is excellent. However, I’d like to push beyond focusing on whether or not a prospective grad student should or should not take on a lot of debt. Focusing on the individual gets us into a mindset where we portray the grad student as a patsy or a fool, and spares anyone else any responsibility or blame. So starting from the individual making a decision, here are some better questions we might ask:

1) Why might someone want to spend their life as an anthropologist? Say what you will about the state of the discipline, its skills at teaching, its accessibility. For all these issues of access and abstruseness, and despite the cost of tuition and the amount of adjuncts hustling out there, we still manage to convince a lot of people that they want to become an anthropologist. This is awesome. How and why do we this? What does this tell us about the folks (possibly you and definitely me!) who are willing to go into debt to chase this dream? We should work with this desire instead of saying it’s stupid.

2) How many jobs for anthropologists have people that make anthropologists made? Seriously. How many academic positions has a tenured professor or a prolific department actually made? Not how many of their people have found jobs and careers. How many positions that can support the livelihood of an anthropologist have fellow anthropologists that see no problem making PhDs endlessly, made? I suspect the answer to this question is disheartening. But investigating it would both move us away from victim blaming and to a place where we could explore whatever success there is at creating jobs for anthropologists to do research or teach.

3) How many jobs for anthropologists has the AAA created? Not posted to a job forum, but actually created for anthropologists.

4) Who is making jobs for anthropologists? When and why are deans and provosts keen to make full time anthropology jobs? When and why do professional schools think it’s great to have some anthropologists around? How can we accelerate both of those? Which consulting/marketing/PR firms or government agencies like what we have to say? Why? Why do we rely on non-anthropologists to create work for anthropologists?

5) If we think that all this debt is a problem, what would an anthropology debt forgiveness fund look like? What would it take to get anthropologists out of debt? Could we raise such a fund? Would the world be better or worse if we did?

6) And if the academy is the problem, if it’s rotten to the core, if it offers most of its young lives of privation and misery, in what ways can people become anthropologists outside of the academy? How do we work with that desire I noted up in the first question? How are departments and bona fide anthropologists offering training to people who are interested but can’t or won’t attend graduate programs? What viable non-debt alternatives are we making for people to learn anthropology? To take one very small example, I teach a weekly course in anthropology (some methods and a general overview) at a local high school. I volunteer. The discussion is great. And the students are starting to do a little bit of research. I’m sure there is and could be a lot more of this out there.

I think the key to a lot of these dilemmas is to not get mired in the rhetoric of individual choice. Often we say that student debtors, despite how romantically we portray the life of an anthropologist, make bad choices and are buying a one way ticket to debt peonage. Instead, we should look at the problem of student debt as a collective action problem for our discipline and perhaps the academic community as a whole. We’re already organized. We have professional associations and departments, listservs and meetings. We just need to decide that this is a problem for all of us, not just those poor fools in front of whom the discipline pulls up the ladder. And we have to decide to mobilize around it.

My dissertation work is on finance people–private equity and venture capital investors specifically. They often talk about skin in the game, or the amount of someone’s own money that a person has invested in a company as a gauge of how serious they are. The more of their own wealth and well-being they’ve sacrificed and gambled, the more serious investors take an entrepreneur. Assuming for a moment that people entering anthropology programs actually understand how debt works (since 2008 you’d have to be living under a rock to not have some idea), what might this borrowed logic tell us about those people amassing big piles of debt to become anthropologists? And what would happen if we stopped thinking of it as an individual choice to have skin in the game or to go into debt? We’ve trained people in such a way and shown life structured in such a way that they think becoming an anthropologist is worthwhile. Why would we want to blame them for believing what we say?

Ryan Anderson is an environmental and economic anthropologist. His current research focuses on the social dynamics of coastal development and conservation in Baja California Sur, Mexico. He is currently a lecturer in the department of anthropology at San Diego State University. You can reach him at ryan AT savageminds dot org or @anthropologia on twitter.