By Dr. Bilinda Straight
Professor of Anthropology
Western Michigan University
I recently revisited press coverage of the 2010 union win for faculty in anthropology and other disciplines at Florida State University, where an arbitrator reversed the termination of 21 tenured faculty members earlier that year, ruling that the firings had violated the FSU faculty union contract. The university’s administration, which had cited deep cuts in state appropriations to justify the firings, had also announced plans to merge some departments as part of its cost-saving efforts and to eliminate others, including anthropology.
These events of course prefaced a series of provocative comments made by Florida Governor Rick Scott the following year in which he declared that anthropology has no place in the state university system:
“We don’t need a lot more anthropologists in the state,” Scott told a radio talk show host in October 2011. “It’s a great degree if people want to get it, but we don’t need them here. I want to spend our dollars giving people science, technology, engineering, and math degrees. That’s what our kids need to focus all their time and attention on, those types of degrees, so when they get out of school, they can get a job.”
According to the Orlando Sentinel, in a speech to a business association, Scott asked them, “Do you want to use your tax money to educate more people who can’t get jobs in anthropology? I don’t.”
Much of the public discourse surrounding the Florida controversies, including articles defending the value of anthropology in response to the governor’s comments as well as the arbitrator’s report ordering the reinstatement of the fired faculty members, focused on the cost-efficiency of anthropology, including the grants brought in by the faculty alongside the high general education tuition dollars they generated and other budgetary advantages. As the arbitrator, Stanley H. Sargent, concluded: “It made no sense to eliminate anthropology from a budget standpoint.”
Responses to Scott’s comments also made strong cases for anthropology’s broad relevance while emphasizing its important role in STEM education and research. A statement by the American Anthropological Association pointed out to Scott that “anthropologists are leaders in our nation’s top science fields, making groundbreaking discoveries in areas as varied as public health, human genetics, legal history, bilingualism, the African American heritage, and infant learning.”
Brent Weisman, chair of the Department of Anthropology at the University of South Florida, made a similar case on behalf of his department: “Anthropologists at USF work side by side with civil and industrial engineers, cancer researchers, specialists in public health and medicine, chemists, biologists, and others in the science, technology, and engineering fields that the Governor so eagerly applauds. Our colleagues in the natural, engineering, and medical sciences view the anthropological collaboration as absolutely essential to the success of their research and encourage their students to take courses in anthropology to help make them better scientists. Anthropology is a human science in its own right.”
All this is true. And yet, making the case for anthropology on the basis of its contributions to STEM fields risks repeating what many well-intentioned scholars did in overemphasizing monuments to defend Africa’s contributions to civilization: a strategy that uses the colonizers’ yardstick to measure its own worth.
Anthropology makes intellectual contributions to STEM but it shares its moral relevance with the humanities. That moral relevance is in teaching students how to critically evaluate their world from a system-wide perspective.
The national siphoning off of financial support from the liberal arts is an unprecedented assault on the spirit of democracy. It is an assault on moral freedom, an assault on personal liberty, an assault on what the architects of the Constitution (and the women in their lives) saw as the most important reasons for educating the masses:
“Experience hath shewn, that even under the best forms, those entrusted with power have, in time, and by slow operations, perverted it into tyranny; and it is believed that the most effectual means of preventing this would be, to illuminate, as far as practicable, the minds of the people at large.” (Thomas Jefferson)
We do not have liberal arts for the sake of getting jobs. Universities were not founded solely or even primarily to offer vocational training. Were that true, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams would not have supported free public education. As Adams wrote in 1785:
“The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and be willing to bear the expenses of it. There should not be a district of one mile square, without a school in it, not founded by a charitable individual, but maintained at the public expense of the people themselves.”
Universities are laboratories of the civic mind, of the public good. To assert this as no longer true is to cherry pick the principles our founders espoused in creating our democracy.
We have a right to bear arms for the same reason that we have a right to have our minds illuminated as far as practicable. Otherwise we truly are dumb brutes wielding weapons without purpose.
There is no time for the right to bear arms to be invoked without a reminder of its absolutely necessary twin – the type of education that leads to illumination. The person who bears arms without illumination is only half of a democratic human being. We do not bear arms just for the sake of personal safety. We bear arms collectively, for the sake of collective freedoms.
The contemporary problems of joblessness and job insecurity are not due to the ways in which universities educate. That claim is an elaborate, beautifully crafted trick on the part of political ideologues whose best chance for election and re-election (and for further widening inequality for their own self gain) is by spreading confusion to an increasingly uneducated but well-armed electorate.
Universities – in this long view – will eventually become high tech vocational training scrubbed clean of any democratic debate. The most dangerous adversary to political despotism will be as quietly eradicated as the Department of Anthropology at Western Michigan University is being eradicated today, as Africana Studies was yesterday, and as Sociology or Philosophy or maybe your own department or discipline may be tomorrow.
In that world, we may only need English for remedial purposes, for those who need additional support post-high school so they can write up their scientific findings, and History not at all. I remember once hearing that Philosophy explains what is possible and Science demonstrates it.
Perhaps we are on a path towards eliminating the need to explain anything – explanations can be reserved for the elite. For the rest of us: Conduct experimental trial according to instructions, replicate, eliminate what cannot be replicated, repeat. Replicate, eliminate, repeat. Aim gun, release trigger, repeat.
Editor’s note: The author is a Quaker pacifist and does not endorse violence. She does support the intent of the founding fathers (and women in their lives) to protect citizens from a despotic government that retains power through fear and the withholding of the right to enlightenment.