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The Limited Good of Rick Scott's Anthropology

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RICK SCOTT

The ghoulish governor, Florida's favorite son, Rick Scott is in the news again. This time he's bashing anthropology and showcasing his profound ignorance of culture and society. "If I'm going to take money from a citizen to put into education then I'm going to take money to create jobs," Scott said earlier this week. "So I want the money to go to a degree where people can get jobs in this state. Is it a vital interest of the state to have more anthropologists? I don't think so." Later in the interview Scott, whose daughter majored in anthropology at the College of William and Mary, said: "It's a great degree if people want to get it. But we don't need them here."

As you might expect, these comments triggered a torrent of critical commentary from anthropologists and others in the academy. Virginia Dominguez, the president of the American Anthropological Association called Scott's comments "shortsighted" and "unfortunate" and requested a meeting with the governor so that he might be better informed abut the usefulness of anthropology. Rachel Newcomb, who teaches anthropology in Florida, has written about the positive social and economic impact of anthropology in Florida. She also discussed -- quite powerfully -- the perils of technocratic culture and how universities in China and India are attempting to incorporate anthropology and other liberal arts disciplines into their rather sterile curricula -- all to train technologically informed students in critical and creative thinking. In a Mother Jones article about Governor Scott and anthropology, Adam Weinstein suggests that eliminating programs in anthropology and psychology and would bring a political bonus for Governor Scott. He says that Scott may be out to eliminate anthropology and the liberal arts:

As opposed to conservative-friendly disciplines like economics and business management, liberal arts produce more culturally aware and progressive citizens, inclined to challenge ossified social conventions and injustices. Eliminate cultural an social sciences from public colleges, and you'll ultimately produce fewer community organizers, poets and critics; you'll probably church out more Rotarians, Junior Leaguers, and Republican donors.

Somehow I don't think that this waterfall of critical commentary will impress Florida's increasingly unpopular Tea Party Governor. Even if he agreed to meet with officials from the American Anthropological Association, which is highly doubtful, their statements of fact would not convince him to change his mind. I'm not sure he cares what universities in China and India are doing to incorporate anthropology and other liberal arts disciplines into their curricula. Although he might not like the gist of the Adam Weinstein's piece in Mother Jones, he probably won't read it. If he did, he wouldn't give Weinstein's comments a second thought.

Governor Scott is an ideologue completely isolated from thoughts that fall beyond the boundaries of his disturbingly narrow view of the world. He makes harsh comments about anthropology and the liberal arts because he knows that they tap into the long-flowing steam of American populism. He knows that Americans pride themselves as a "can do" people. When there is a problem, real Americans find common sense solutions. Fancy theories only get in the way of real results. Eggheads and pointy-headed intellectuals are effete. If they manage do the job, they don't do it well. We don't need our children studying superfluous subjects like anthropology, psychology, music and philosophy.

This set of ideas about common sense had an impact on my life. When my mother learned that I wanted to study philosophy in college, she became upset.

"What kind of job can you get with that?" she asked me.

"Well," I told her, "I want to be a writer."

"There's no money in that. You should be a doctor, a lawyer, or an accountant."

Not many people in my family had gone to college and those who did became -- you guessed it -- doctors, lawyers and accountants. Much to my mother's dismay, I graduated college with a degree in philosophy and headed off to West Africa as a Peace Corps Volunteer. But my mother, a spirited woman, was persistent.

"When you get back from Africa," she said as I departed for my two-year tour of Peace Corps service, "I'll arrange for you to see your cousin Ivan. He's in insurance and doing very well."

My late mother was a wonderful woman, but her experience of privation during the great depression made her view of the world a narrow one. She couldn't imagine her son becoming a university professor or a writer of books. Like millions of other Americans, including Governor Rick Scott, my late mother believed in the limited good.

The anthropologist George Foster coined the term "limited good" in 1965 to describe Mexican peasants who believed that the good things in life -- money and good fortune -- were in short supply and beyond their capacity to capture and fully enjoy. As a consequence, these peasants did not pursue new opportunities and lost their ability to dream about a different life.

My sense is that the notion of the limited good should note be restricted to the Mexican peasants that Foster so ably described. Belief in the limited good has long been part of mainstream American society, which means that politicians like Rick Scott have repeatedly tapped into these sentiments for political gain. My students, many of whom come from families of modest means, feel the pressure of the limited good. Their parents want them to major in business, accounting, or computer science -- degrees that will lead to good well-paying jobs. Who can fault them for wanting what's best for their kids. And yet many of my students, who have little or no interest in accounting, end up learning how to do audits instead of following their passion into anthropology, history or psychology.

"I want to major in anthropology," one student said to me last week, but my mom thinks it won't get me a job."

"My Dad," another particularly brilliant student said to me, "thinks that anthropology is a waste of time."

"And what do you think?" I ask.

"I want to become an anthropologist."

"Then follow your heart and your passion," I told her. "I don't know if you'll succeed, but at least you will have tried. I'll help you in anyway I can."

If we eliminate the liberal arts and humanities from public university curricula, we will produce a generation of uncritical technocrats who will have lost their sense of wonder, their feeling of intellectual passion and their capacity to dream about life beyond the boundaries of the limited good. In such a passionless and unimaginative space, we will lose our capacity to think, grow and reconfigure a rapidly changing world

Is that what you want Governor Scott? Is that what you want for your daughter and your grandchildren?