Liberal Arts Anthropology

Update: This post was written in 2012 as an initial response to the boom of pieces questioning the value of an undergraduate anthropology major. The culmination post was Anthropology: Worst Major for Corporate Tool, Best Major to Change Your Life, which also became one of the first posts on the blog to “go viral.”

2012 brought an ongoing boomlet in reprisals of that Governor Rick Scott “Florida doesn’t need more anthropologists” story. In the New York Times, Frank Bruni writes an Op-Ed on The Imperiled Promise of College which singles out liberal arts disciplines philosophy and anthropology:

I single out philosophy and anthropology because those are two fields–along with zoology, art history and humanities–whose majors are least likely to find jobs reflective of their education level, according to government projections quoted by the Associated Press. But how many college students are fully aware of that? How many reroute themselves into, say, teaching, accounting, nursing or computer science, where degree-relevant jobs are easier to find?

Meanwhile, Adam Van Arsdale uses a pair of insightful posts, The usefulness of anthropology and Thoughts on an anthropology curriculum to ably defend anthropology when it appears as #9 in a list of the 13 most useless majors.

The ongoing slights on anthropology seem hardly worth the concerted defense mounted after the Governor Scott comments. My Florida Governor’s Daughter and Undergraduate Anthropology Major still gets some traffic on these issues, in part because I used Max Weber to talk about how “academic life is a mad hazard” and got a prominent link from the viral Open Letter to My Students: No, You Cannot be a Professor.

However, the latest salvo did seem worth some response, as these are issues that emerged during a recent admissions event, and my college president talked about how the New York Times Op-Ed had called anthropology a “useless major.” These are things I’ve been thinking about for a long time. Like Adam Van Arsdale, I see Liberal Arts Anthropology as a critical part of the curriculum–not only worth defending, but crucial for thinking through contemporary political, economic, and social issues.

1. Liberal Arts Anthropology is growing

As I emphasized at the beginning of my 2011-2013 statement on What is Anthropology, there was a growing interest in the field, a growing number of undergraduate majors, a growing international presence, and projected job growth. While we should still encourage and support the anthropology done at main research universities, we should also recognize the potential of liberal arts anthropology in small colleges, internationally, and the work of applied practitioners. Anthropology is growing not because we are telling students they can get jobs “in anthropology” (many anthropologists go out of their way to caution against such direct vocational messages), but because people are interested in what anthropology has to say and anthropological approaches to human problems.

2. The issue of jobs and college is part of a broader political and economic failure.

This really does not have as much to do with anthropology as it does with the fact that getting a college degree simply does not lead to employment, and unemployment figures for the young are pretty bad. As Paul Krugman writes in Wasting Our Minds:

What the young need most of all, then, is a better job market. . . . We should be expanding student aid, not slashing it. And we should reverse the de facto austerity policies that are holding back the U.S. economy–the unprecedented cutbacks at the state and local level, which have been hitting education especially hard.

Yes, such a policy reversal would cost money. But refusing to spend that money is foolish and shortsighted even in purely fiscal terms. Remember, the young aren’t just America’s future; they’re the future of the tax base, too.

A mind is a terrible thing to waste; wasting the minds of a whole generation is even more terrible. Let’s stop doing it. [Update October 2017: See the Anthropology Today special issue Alternatives to Austerity.]

Basically any college degree–and even some of the previously sure bets like law degrees–are no longer guarantees. But that’s where the flexibility and creativity of anthropological training and liberal arts skills are most needed: to weather uncertainty at a time when majors can go from useless to useful in a matter of months.

3. Liberal Arts anthropology courses are an ideal complement to vocational-track majors.

Interestingly, my liberal arts institution, Hartwick College has programs in all the fields Bruni lists: “teaching, accounting, nursing or computer science.” And in each one of those fields, I’ve had very strong students take at least Introduction-to-Anthropology if not several courses or a minor. Sometimes those students switch to or add an anthropology major–other students go from an interest in anthropology into one of those fields. Liberal arts anthropology coursework can be quite vital and well-integrated with any of these more vocationally-oriented programs. Some of these programs even require or strongly recommend anthropology as an essential dimension of this training.

4. Anthropology is a quintessential liberal arts major.

We have the natural sciences, evolution, biology, quantitative approaches, data-mining, statistics. We have the humanities, arts, literature, writing, music, dance. We have the social sciences, history, economics, politics, geography. Anthropology as a major is inherently interdisciplinary. And if there’s ever been a discipline that stresses critical thinking–as radical examination of received categories–anthropology is at the forefront. In short, an anthropology major should deliver the thinking, reading, writing, and collaborative skills that every employer survey says they want from employees.

5. Anthropology continues to be interdisciplinary in graduate school and beyond.

Although many graduate programs and departments are all about specialization and narrow focus, anthropology retains a core holism that cultivates interdisciplinary reach. Kate Clancy has recently put up a great post on these matters, I Can Out-Interdiscipline You: Anthropology and the Biocultural Approach, which already has a few spin-off posts from some of the big-name anthropology blogs, and a vibrant comment stream with more heavy-hitter anthropology bloggers. If I read Clancy correctly, she’s arguing for thorough training in a single subfield, but also a canon of additional reading and conversations across the traditional boundaries.

To summarize: Anthropology is a growing, vibrant field of study with many useful contributions. Gaining an anthropological perspective can be quite world-changing and re-orienting. It is deeply connected with the liberal arts mission.

All that said, how much debt would I acquire to pursue anthropology? That’s where things get tricky–debt is extremely limiting, often crippling. I’ve been extremely fortunate to have financial aid and fellowships–one of the well-hidden secrets of elite institutions is that often their high sticker-price is ameliorated by generous financial aid. I attended Phillips Exeter Academy, one of those snobby elite prep schools, but it’s free for any admitted student with a family income of $75,000 or less. I went from there to Williams College, again elite, but with a need-blind admissions policy. The trick is to get accepted, but it can be worth aiming at institutions that initially seem out of price range.

Liberal Arts Anthropology is more necessary than ever. But for many students it can mean too-heavy debt loads, and that’s something that really needs to be addressed. As Krugman puts it, students incurring debt in order to graduate “into an economy that doesn’t seem to want them” is a recipe for short and long-term disaster.


2015: See Anthropology Major Jobs: Advice for Undergraduate Majors.

2012: See Anthropology: Worst Major for Corporate Tool, Best Major to Change Your Life and Are the Liberal Arts Relevant? Since writing this blog-post, I’ve found two highly-related commentaries. First, an interview with Andrew Delbanco, author of College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be, touches on many of these points, from the purpose of college, to mission, to student loan debt, to the role of elite institutions. Second, Did Anyone Ask the Students? by Jeff Selingo talks about how “face-to-face education matters even more now,” why “more career exploration is needed before college,” and that in some ways “majors don’t matter.” Also, at the Washington Monthly, Joshua Tucker has a great piece Correcting the Record on College Graduates and Job Prospects. Tucker notes that while this is a brutal job market, the idea that things suddenly fell off a cliff for recent college graduates is based on faulty numbers. Moreover, the evidence that STEM is the only hope is also misguided:

Are the mal-employed all art history and anthropology majors? . . . The cost of being a humanities/liberal arts major may not be as high as Bruni claims. While the chart shows that about one third of humanities/liberal arts majors were mal-employed, about 30% of business/management majors were similarly mal-employed, and about 18% of engineering and math and computer science graduates were mal-employed.

To cite: Antrosio, Jason. 2012. “Liberal Arts Anthropology: Growing, Useful, World-Changing.” Living Anthropologically website, First posted 1 May 2012. Revised 11 July 2020.