After all the 2011 “we don’t need anthropologists here,” it turns out Florida Governor Rick Scott’s daughter was an undergraduate anthropology major. The anthropology major news is a great turnabout, and makes it worth reflecting on the status of anthropology as an undergraduate major. It is at the undergraduate level that the anthropological message is perhaps the most world-changing.
As much as I took to heart John Hawks’s recent kick-in-the-pants, What’s wrong with anthropology?, it seemed mostly aimed at the research university and Ph.D. programs. As a full-time professor for undergraduates at a teaching-centered college, passages like this one didn’t ring so true: “Universities are shutting down or shrinking anthropology departments. Hardly anyone thinks of expanding them. That’s because hardly anyone thinks of anthropology at all.”
Now of course I’m not saying such things could not happen, or that there isn’t a fight for every line. Times are tough in higher education. But in my situation another department isn’t going to be able to grab any resources from our demise–our budgets are tight enough. They’ll just be forced to teach more students.
I realize I may be in a unique situation–my spouse and I both teach full-time for two independent anthropology departments in the same town. Nevertheless, based on rather constant student demand, it would seem we can do more to create and promote independent anthropology departments for undergraduate instruction. If anthropology is about Making a difference–as Jeremy Trombley put it–this is one level to aim our efforts.
Of course even a potential rise in undergraduate demand would not solve the painful academic job market issues. There are more than enough existing anthropology Ph.D.’s to fill any new slots. I very rarely would ever recommend a full Ph.D. program to an undergraduate. The anthropology major is great–as Governor Scott’s daughter demonstrates, it can be useful for a variety of careers and programs and can embody a Liberal Arts or interdisciplinary perspective. A focused masters in anthropology can also be very useful and important. But the Ph.D.? That may be a different story.
To be clear, I’m not sure I would recommend a Ph.D. in anything right now, including those fields Governor Scott believes are so in demand. And I still agree with the advice Max Weber doled out nearly 100 years ago:
Academic life is a mad hazard. If the young scholar asks for my advice with regard to habilitation, the responsibility of encouraging him can hardly be borne. . . . Do you in all conscience believe that you can stand seeing mediocrity after mediocrity, year after year, climb beyond you, without becoming embittered and without coming to grief? Naturally, one always receives the answer: “Of course, I live only for my ‘calling.'” Yet, I have found that only a few persons could endure this situation without coming to grief. (from his lecture “Science as a Vocation”)
With all the talk about science and all the talk about politics, check out Weber’s Vocation Lectures: Science As a Vocation, Politics As a Vocation: still fresh–always worth a read.
Update: For follow-ups, see
- Anthropology is the worst college major for being a corporate tool, best major to change your life (August 2012)
- Anthropology and the Liberal Arts (May 2012).
- Anthropology’s Challenge: We can be better (November 2011)