Thank you, Governor Scott: Is Anthropology Practical? (Academia's Image Problem)

"Do you want to use your tax money to educate more people who can't get jobs in anthropology? I don't."
Governor Scott, at the Northwest Business Association in Tallahassee.

Edited to Add: My favorite rebuttal to Governor Scott so far.

A group of students at the University of South Florida responded by creating a beautiful interactive presentation, showing how anthropologists are at work in Florida. Take a look at This is Anthropology.

Earlier this week, Florida Governor Rick Scott made repeated comments about anthropology and public funding for universities. The debate has made the rounds (I learned about it from Gawker's Florida's Governor Declares War on Useless Degree) as academics and anthropologists have tried to defend anthropology, the "study of humans."

Governor Scott is only saying what many others also believe.

To be clear, I think Governor Scott is wrong (and I suspect that targeting "anthropology" is a political move on his part), but I also think he has raised several important questions. Others have done an excellent job explaining that anthropologists are employed in the tech and science fields Governor Scott says are useful. Others have pointed out that, in fact, studying the way people relate is actually quite important for people who care about politics, economics, war, religion, TV shows.

But I want to get to two uncomfortable questions raised by Governor Scott's comments:

1. Why is a "liberal arts" education useful?

2. Why have we (anthropologists, others in liberal arts) not communicated the usefulness of liberal arts?

A "liberal arts" education is useful and practical because it teaches people how to analyze arguments and how to write convincingly. The ability to write a two-page memo that is coherent, persuasive, and grammatically correct is one of the most critical skills someone can learn in college. This gets people hired (cover letters). It convinces companies to expand sales into a new market (business plans). These skills are useful in all areas of business, engineering, IT, marketing, construction, industry, commercial agriculture, pharmaceuticals.

The ability to understand and analyze arguments (to notice the underlying assumptions, to infer conclusions) is the key to be able to determine whether a business plan is solid, whether a proposal for a high-speed train in Central Florida will work, and whether we're being sold on an emotional or partisan appeal, rather than an honest and rational one. Arguments (a.k.a. sensible ideas) aren't just for lawyers. They're for everyone.

We should take seriously the fact that Governor Scott is only saying what many others also believe. I think we, in academia, have a branding and marketing problem. (Incidentally, this is just the kind of thing anthropologists--who study how people behave--are quite good at.) We have not done a good job communicating to our constituency. It's not obvious why "liberal arts" is a good thing (and the phrase itself is confusing) and the whole idea of "going to college to discover yourself" assumes a lot of privilege already (many people cannot afford the luxury of "discovering themselves"--they need to be able to support aging parents, themselves, their children). And so, I think it's important to explain to students just exactly why it's practical that they learn to argue and write.

Governor Scott's comments only make it clearer that we need more people who are trying to address touchy and timely issues through blogs or through their classrooms.

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