Anthropology In Schools: Is There a Future?

03/15/2015 03:41 pm ET | Updated May 15, 2015

Written by Ed Liebow, AAA Executive Director

Racial bias is a documented aspect of police practice, in the United States and elsewhere. In Iraq, antiquities are irreparably damaged for ideological and financial gain, as is often the case in violent struggles. In West Africa, new Ebola cases are all but gone -- for now -- but local health systems too weak to stop the outbreak remain overwhelmed. Conflicts erupt constantly over immigrant rights and the status of refugees. Climate change is destabilizing the entire Arctic. Global trade raises debates about job loss and the fair distribution of profits. These are but a few of the many challenges reported in today's headlines. Taken together, what do they demonstrate? The prominent and enduring need for understanding how human behavior and social values are the key to everything we do.

Our world today is ever more interconnected. Our hopes for tackling these challenges effectively are pinned on better preparing our children for university, careers, and civic life in a way that helps us all understand and appreciate human difference in all its complexity. Anthropology is a field of knowledge that does just that, and anthropology professionals have been hard at work in making sure that methods and materials from this field are well integrated into primary and secondary school systems around the world.

One such effort has been guided by the Royal Anthropological Institute in the UK. In 2010, after several years of careful curriculum design, the RAI succeeded in establishing an anthropology A-level course (more or less the equivalent of high school Advanced Placement courses in the U.S.). This past month, after only a four-year trial period, the British Assessment and Qualifications Alliance (AQA) announced that it is discontinuing the anthropology A-level, and suggested that students consider newly developed courses in sociology or history instead. AQA said that it could not continue to offer the anthropology course because demand has been disappointing, and because it has been difficult to find graders to assess student performance. Although AQA's enrollment goals have not been published, the 500 students who have enrolled since 2010 were apparently not enough.

Anthropologists in many other countries have looked to the UK as a model for getting beyond the "Indiana Jones" stereotype and having students consider the subject more seriously. In the U.S., for example, the American Anthropological Association (AAA) notes a growing interest on the part of both public and private sector employers in employing graduates with anthropology training because of the methods of inquiry that are taught, as well as the substantive knowledge gained. For these reasons, the AAA commissioned a Task Force to help expand the horizons of K-14 teaching and learning. The Task Force has recommended ways that schools, museums and other sites of learning might be assisted to reinforce key concepts concerning what it means to be human, how the things we do in seemingly distant parts of the planet really do affect all of us, and what are appropriate methods and ethics of inquiry about the everyday aspects of lived experience.

Other professional groups, like the World Council of Anthropology Associations, the International Union of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences, and their member organizations, are actively compiling best practices in support of teaching and learning. Together, we fully expect to conceptualize, plan and build a strong education and outreach presence within the organization, strengthen our collaborations with relevant organizations to better incorporate anthropology into social studies and other curricular frameworks, and actively seek opportunities to engage museum education, public television and other educational platforms outside of schools.

In the meantime, a Change.Org petition is circulating to request that the AQA reconsider its plans to terminate the UK's A-levels in anthropology. More than 5,000 signatures from 60 countries have been collected so far, and the number is growing every day. While many believe AQA's termination decision is premature, the AQA believes that its review of the four-year old program has been lengthy and thorough. It shows little inclination to change its plans, but of course it is not too late for them to do so. Indeed, the power of referendum is not to be underestimated. To paraphrase something inspirational often attributed to prominent anthropologist Margaret Mead, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."