A Moment for My Soapbox: Anthropology and Undergraduate Education

I was chatting with my mom today. She works at a high school, and she was talking to a colleague at work who was bemoaning the fact that her daughter had decided to major in anthropology. “What is she going to do with that?” she kept asking, “my husband and I have told her she’s making a mistake.”


The truth is that a BA in anthropology prepares students for many, many experiences, though perhaps not in an obvious, practical, dollars-and-cents kind of way. Of the top of my head, I know that a BA in anthropology can lead people into exciting careers such as the US Foreign Service and the United Nations (as well as the perhaps more morally objectionable CIA). It can prepare students to pursue graduate degrees in other fields such as social work (always my Plan B if this anthropology didn’t work out), public health, and public policy. Young graduates can join the peace corps, or participate in programs like JET, the program that sends people holding a Bachelor’s degree to teach English in Japan. Yes, it’s true that if you want to graduate college and go work for a corporation, you might need a bit of coaching before you can convince an employer to take you on (finding internships while in college is a good way of doing that). It’s also true that if you major in anthropology, an advanced degree should probably be in your future. But, armed with this knowledge, our young graduates should be able to succeed and find fulfilling, fairly compensated work.

As I write this, I realize that I’m failing my students. I’m failing them because I am assuming that they already know this information. I’m assuming that the career center or other colleagues are guiding our undergrads towards a future that holds more than an unfruitful job search. I am passing the buck, and in doing so, I am putting my department, and my field, at risk.

Anthropology used to be a field that had its own degree of caché and respect. I was amused when Ruth Benedect’s The Chrysanthemum and the Sword showed up on an episode of Mad Men. Cultural anthropologists of the Writing Culture generation scoffed at this “popular” success, scoffed at “science,” scoffed at our claims to positivist truth. And in many ways, the anthropological 1980s bequeathed to those of us who came of age in the anthropological post-80 ( and who are coming of age still) the wonderful tools of critical theory that enable us to perceive the infinite and unequal complexity of our world.

Anthropology’s unique and still relevant contribution to the world is captured to an extent in the words of Living Anthropologically blogger Jason Antrosio (citing Fabian),

“Anthropology emerged, less as a science of human nature than as the study of the damage done by one part of mankind to another (and thereby to all of humanity). If that has indeed been our raison d’être during the last century or two, we are not likely to lose it in the next millennium.”

I no longer see these questions as academic questions. I can no longer afford to see them as academic questions. I see too many of our majors leaving our department because they think they have better financial prospects elsewhere. I see a generation of millenials who are more motivated to attend college in order to achieve financial security than to grow intellectually or as human beings. I live in a state where an ignorant governor repeatedly bashes my field, saying “Florida doesn’t need any more anthropologists.” I read pop-scientific reports saying that Anthropology is the “worst major” to take for financial success. And, most recently, Science printed an article that points out that anthropologists are the least paid and least respected of all scientists in the US.

I can use my wonderful, anthropological theory to problematize and de-construct this to death, I’m good at that. But that won’t change the fact that our undergrads, the undergrads that keep our department alive and are the future of our field, will read these publications, or get grief from their parents, and maybe walk away from our discipline, because “we” (the proverbial “we”) are not doing a good enough job of making sure they know what their options really are.

In my department, the other subdisciplines are doing okay. They have caché. What they do is “cool” in a way that appeals to the general public. But I’m a cultural anthropologist, not exactly “cool” in the same way because we have shied away from the fetishization of the people we work with, and anything that appeals to the general public will have some degree of commodification. While bones, artifacts and history can take a little commodification, living, breathing human beings shouldn’t. And I need to recognize my role in not only awakening the passion and interest in our subject matter in my students, but also in making sure my students know what their options are after graduation.

This is a great Prezi show that circulated when Scott made his comments about anthropology.


One thought on “A Moment for My Soapbox: Anthropology and Undergraduate Education

  1. Pingback: Good Anthropology from the January 2013 Anthropology Blogs | Anthropology Report

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