In America education should produce citizens, not workers

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.”


Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at

18 thoughts on “In America education should produce citizens, not workers

  1. Great essay, Rex! I grew up in Charlottesville, went to UVa, and excavated at Monticello, so I squee a little whenever an anthropologist mentions Jefferson. He was an early proponent of stratigraphic excavation, as he dug up a Native American burial mound in what was, 200-some years later, my neighborhood. Jefferson gifted many good ideas to pre-Boasian anthropology (even if his treatment of slaves and Native Americans is not even close to modern ethical standards), and I still discuss his Notes on the State of Virginia in my intro courses.

  2. Doing what is urgent rather than what is important sums up beautifully what is wrong with American political culture. But James Adair is a much better choice for Ur-Americanist than Jefferson, though I understand that name recognition is rhetorically important here.

  3. Rex,
    Thank you for your blog post today. I run a school called the Global Citizenship Experience ( and am constantly awed by the masses who still think that the end goal is a degree or a job, or in the case of your argument, STEM professions in particular. I would challenge Rick Scott to consider companies like IDEO and Gravity Tank and 3M. These innovative and successful companies do not excel merely because of their engineering training, but because they consider the human being who interacts with the product or service. In our high school design we are constantly struggling to balance skills and application. We hold ourselves accountable by asking a very simple question: why (what’s the purpose)? Invariably, the answer comes back to something that makes the world better, for an individual and for the community.
    p.s. i will post a hyperlink to your article along with my comment on my blog

  4. Beautifully stated, Rex.

    “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.”

    In a word, thanks.

  5. If anthropology wants to save itself, wouldn’t a more coherent argument be that only anthropologists can perform the duties and functions required by Human Terrain Systems and other innovative developments in counterinsurgency operations?

    If anthropologists want to prove their worth to their society, they need to get off the sidelines and join the military as it fights for their freedom.

  6. Col. Nelson wrote: “If anthropology wants to save itself, wouldn’t a more coherent argument be…”

    Actually, I found Rex’s argument in favor of producing free-thinking, informed citizens to be quite coherent–and convincing. So I guess we can agree to disagree about that one.

  7. The U.S. Military and the politicians who send it to fight don’t need people to help them make an unworkable plan in progress workable, they need people to tell them plainly that a plan is unworkable before blood and treasure is spent on it in the first place.

  8. Regarding the title: education should produce citizens, not workers. This is not the current convention. More than ever, Americans define themselves by their work. The current employment recession is as much an identity crisis as it is the very real issue of justice in relation to labor and debt.

  9. Thanks for this piece, Rex, as everyone else has said. You have a good example of the rapid changes in what we face, and why that makes a liberal arts education important for citizens. And then back it up with some important history. And I like the idea of Thomas Jefferson as ur-anthropologist.

  10. Whats enigneering and medecine? Learn to spell and make a good argument. Terrible. There is no demand for anthropologist other than complaining-annoying-stupid professors that don’t know anything about real science.

  11. That’s it: at the AAAs I’m going to list the affiliation on my name tag as “The Booker T. Washington of Activist Anthropology”. Genius.

    To be honest, I am surprised that this entry hasn’t gotten more pushback from leftist/activist anthropologists about how terrible American democracy is, Jefferson was a neurotic spendthrift slave owner, structural violence and colonialism is what made America, not liberty and justice for all etc. How can anthropology tolerate the moral self-confidence and pariochalism-cum-patriotism this post displays? Cmon folks: come at me!

    As for some of the other comments, I used to be very sensitive to the fact that I am one of the worst spellers on the planet, but now I find “since you’ve spelled your arugment wrong, it must be incorrect” to be an almost empowering critique — how can you take someone seriously when their engagement with your claim stops at the level of typography?

    Finally, “Col. Nelson” is actually some sort of Zizek-Crazed OWS type masquerading as a right-wing sock puppet, since any red-blooded American soldier will know that we’ve won the war in Iraq (in fact, we’ve announced our victory twice now!) and Afghanistcan is COMPLETELY ready to stand on its own two feet, so HTS is no longer needed and can be abandoned. Gratz to all who served. For reallyies.

    More seriously, though, putting on the Booker T. Washington mask for a second, surely one of the biggest problems with America today is that the only form of civil virtue that anyone seems to recognize is military service. Somehow we expect ‘real’ patriots to lay down their life for their country, but asking someone to sacrifice for the general good by paying taxes is somehow completely unacceptable. So much for civic virtue.

  12. Rex, Well put, as always. And I would choose your side against Rick Scott’s if I had to choose. But, without regard to the blowing of further smoke up your tailfeathers, let me attempt to answer your call for some leftist pushback.

    How do you see the Citizen/Worker dichotomy playing out in your department? Is the contingent labor at your school so happy to put food on the table that they keep a polite subaltern silence about being shut out of workplace self-governance? (That is, presuming there still is some pre-managerialized space of collegial self-governance in your department.) Do the weaker citizens of our beloved discipline “especially suited to self-governance” ever complain about not being able to afford the costs of membership/airfare/hotel required to participate in the popular assemblies through which their profession governs itself? All of which is to say, in other words: is the Tenured Class really worthy of the noblesse oblige built into a distinction between “workers” and “human beings”?

    Of course not. It would be impossibly bourgeois to insist the values of academic “citizenship” are reserved for people “free” from the economic pressures of working for a living. You are not trying to argue that anthropology is just a bourgeois affectation of the leisured classes. You know full well that education does not “make human beings” in the abstract, but under actual economic and political conditions, conditions which make working a necessity for … say about 99% of the world’s population (to pull a number out of a hat). If anthropology really can “invent a new industry” to employ these people, I am sure Rick Scott will be more than happy to eat a double helping of crow and appoint a Sociocultural Commissar. But it seems more likely that anthropology is condemned to follow the rest of the world into a period of divisive economic stress. And when the ideological bubble that endows the Uni degree with its fetishized aura as a ticket into the leisured classes pops, anthropology’s kept estate of contingent labor and its reserve army of unemployable graduate students might find more common cause with the rest of the 99% than with Thomas Jefferson’s venerable aristocratic liberal-artistic virtues. The vital anthropology of the 21st century will have less, not more, connection to the values of the 18th. Hell, maybe Graeber really is the Second Coming, and the values of the 21st century in general will be more anthropological than aristocratic. We can certainly hope. But if so, then our vaunted expertise in “self governance” better start generating proof-of-concept for how to detach our particular discipline from the sinking ship of Subprime Student Debt, Inc.

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