Wednesday, October 12, 2011

No Anthropology in Florida?

In a statement that's gotten a fair bit of press, at least on my Facebook news feed, Florida governor Rick Scott advocated for a change in the focus of higher education funding away from subjects in the humanities and social sciences and towards those in the STEM fields - science, technology, engineering, mathematics. It's part of his plan to develop job skills in students in Florida, which of course sounds like a good thing, but really isn't that simple.

The reason he's getting so much attention, at least from my Feed, is because he specifically selected anthropology as an example of a 'worthless' major. As you can imagine there was the expected level of outrage, a letter issued by the American Anthropological Association, and general slagging off of the governor for his position. I will be one of the first advocates for the critical thinking skills that can be gained from an anthropology major, not to mention the exposure to other belief systems and ways of life. I have to ask myself, though, why did he choose anthropology to pick on?

This article I read recently may provide the answer. John Hawks, Associate Professor of Anthropology at UW-Madison, argues, among several points, that anthropology really does a poor job of engaging with and communicating our research to the public. He sees this reflected in the overall piss-poor job prospects for graduate students in anthropology, compared to other fields such as sociology or geography. Essentially, anthropology isn't creating those ties and opportunities outside of academia that are necessary to justify their existence. This isn't a far cry from the argument made by Dr. Jeremy Sabloff in his Distinguished Lecture at the American Anthropological Association annual meeting in 2010 (note that he subtitled his talk with 'We Urgently Need Anthropological Public Intellectuals').

So, calls are coming from every direction, and some people are responding, but not necessarily with the wholesale change that may be required, and certainly not at the institutional level where a lot of the change needs to happen. Dishearteningly few anthropology programs in the States conduct community engagement programs or service learning, and this is particularly true of larger universities, those R1s, where the focus is still on 'pure' research and peer publications for the tenure process, rather than the ability to speak to the general public.

It's odd, though, that Gov. Scott should pick on anthropology in Florida. The Florida Public Archaeology Network is a dynamic and vibrant example of community outreach, teaching skills, providing employment, and showing just what archaeology (and by extension anthropology) can do. Of course, if you are a cynic like me, you see Gov. Scott's call for what it is - less funding for those disciplines that broaden minds and might contribute to a more liberal voting base.

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