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Is Rick Scott Right About Anthropology?

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RICK SCOTT

When Florida Governor Rick Scott called for slashing funding to anthropology programs in his state because they don't produce jobs, anthropologists were in an uproar. They quickly scrambled to educate him on the vital role anthropology plays in the sciences, and the contributions it makes to policy, health, international development and even Homeland Security. It is unlikely their arguments will persuade him to reconsider his position, however.

When people publicly commit to a religious or political perspective, whether left or right or what have you, when presented with information challenging their positions they become more certain, not less certain, of their positions, as anyone in sales, marketing or psychology well knows. Moreover, Scott is probably quite aware of the role the social sciences already play in shaping policy and public perception. If anything, his sensitivity to anthropology's social reach may well be what is influencing his aim to gut funding to the discipline and to other liberal arts programs, because these programs encourage critical thinking and challenge exclusionary policies and practices based on race, religion, class, gender and other social categories.

Yet his suggestion that the field is not preparing its graduates for jobs is not so far off the mark. For all that the discipline has done to defend the many jobs that anthropology graduates are prepared for, beyond the academy few of these jobs require a background in anthropology as much as they require generic skills in critical thinking, writing and social science methodologies -- skills obtained from any number of liberal arts degrees. And when it comes to advanced degrees in anthropology, a strong argument can be made that the degree is one of the most cost-ineffective degrees out there. According to the National Science Foundation, a Ph.D. in anthropology takes more time than any other degree to achieve -- with a median age at graduation of 36. Yet the number of jobs for those graduates is among the lowest, suggesting that anyone who pursues such an advanced degree might be a bit bananas.

Yet ironically, two of the best programs in anthropology for preparing graduates for the job market are in Scott's home state of Florida. The University of South Florida has arguably the strongest applied anthropology program in the nation and the University of Florida's forensic anthropology program is internationally acclaimed. Yet neither of these programs is in sound financial shape, suggesting that anthropology graduates might consider just how easily they are likely to find jobs in their field if anthropology programs themselves are being so drastically cut.

But these programs do teach valuable skills regarding how people communicate and how perceptions are shaped. My hunch is that it is unlikely Governor Scott's campaign is depending on the expertise of science and math majors to tell him how to shape his public image and political message. All those focus groups, polls, questionnaires and studies he and his spin machine depend upon to tell them how to communicate to diverse groups, which groups they should focus on and in what way, and how to support their social agenda, are coming from the social sciences. Scott's own defense of his state's mandate that welfare recipients submit to drug tests is to point to social science research finding that welfare recipients have higher rates of drug use than those who are not on welfare. And arguments for capital punishment, where Florida ranks among the highest in the nation in executing its citizens, also draw on social science research to legitimate the practice.

As these examples illustrate, social science research, including anthropology, is just as easily used to defend socially destructive policies as constructive ones, while just what constitutes constructive and destructive policies is subjective. Anthropology has a long history in both challenging and advancing various social policies. Anthropologists have worked tirelessly to both end, and to promote, slavery, racism, colonial conquest, the Holocaust, McCarthyism, and more recently, Homeland Security (anthropologists are used in warzones to make warfare more culturally sensitive, and hence, effective, leading to serious debates within the discipline).

As anthropology teaches, the rise of any autocratic state, just as the rise of any autocratic organizational culture, depends upon casting certain sectors as favored, and others as disfavored. Once differentially valued, the disfavored group is cast as a threat to the favored group, and those who are effective at shaping public knowledge and perception -- teachers, clergy, writers, artists, reporters and whistleblowers -- are eliminated. By casting anthropology and liberal arts programs as less valued than science and math programs, and then suggesting that funding them is taking money from taxpayers and diverting funding from math and science programs, Scott is trying to shape public perceptions that certain kinds of educators and certain kinds of thinking are a threat to the future of our society and our children. That kind of thinking is a step toward autocratic governing, and almost always makes society ripe for eliminating more and more disfavored groups.

Perhaps Scott's particular peeve with anthropology is because his own child, daughter Jordan Kandah, has an anthropology degree from the College of William and Mary but pursued an MBA after graduating. But if her choices have influenced his position on anthropology as a viable degree, he no doubt is thankful to anthropologists for advancing his family's economic standing in other ways. Forbe's reports that much of his fortune comes from the alternative health care industry, which is heavily dependent upon the research and theories of anthropology. And in 2003, Scott invested $5.5 million in Pharmaca Integrative Pharmacy. Pharmaca is a maker of homeopathic and herbal medicines and skin care products; the corporation employs large numbers of medical and cultural anthropologists in its marketing and research and draws on the holistic theories and findings of anthropology to promote its products.

The bottom line is, take the anthropology -- and other social sciences -- out of Scott's alternative health care investments, his social policies, and his campaign, and there's not much left to defend or promote them. Make no mistake, Rick Scott understands the value of social science very well or he would not be so concerned to demonize and cripple it. But his concern that anthropology and the other social sciences are not preparing students for jobs is a valid concern -- the value of any college education, when considered in terms of how much money is invested in it and how many years students devote to their studies rather than participating in the workforce -- is increasingly questionable in our rapidly changing economy. But if Scott's real measure of a degree's value is the employability and social value of its graduates, then we can expect him to pump an awful lot of money into community colleges and trade schools, where students invest the least amount of capital and graduates get out quickly, find jobs, and enter the service sector -- so that those who do rise to the elite in our society have no shortage of workers to fix their messes and clean up after them.