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Rachel Newcomb

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To Governor Rick Scott: What Anthropologists Can Do for Florida

Posted: 10/13/11 02:53 PM ET

Florida governor Rick Scott recently lashed out against anthropologists, the latest whipping boy of the social sciences. "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. "So I want that money to go to 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 a radio interview, Scott reaffirmed his beef with anthropologists, stating: "It's a great degree if people want to get it. But we don't need them here." Setting aside the fact that his own daughter was an anthropology major, perhaps Scott needs to be schooled on what modern-day anthropologists actually do. In many cases, our research involves not only understanding other cultures but also enhancing productivity, improving efficiency, and yes, strengthening the economy as well.

Students at the University of South Florida, which has one of the strongest applied anthropology programs in the country, created a presentation designed to show Scott what they are already doing to improve life in Florida, most of them even before finishing their degrees. In just a few of the examples shown, they are helping to increase state park revenues, to aide in crime scene reconstruction, and to create preventive health care programs that save taxpayers money by reducing the number of emergency room visits.

As a professor of anthropology at Rollins College, a liberal arts college in Florida, I spend a lot of time talking to students who need to offer their parents concrete evidence of how anthropology can help them get a job someday. Many parents still seem to hold the stereotype that the only career options for anthropologists involve traipsing around remote jungles taking peyote with the natives, or perhaps following the Grateful Dead. But to them, and to Rick Scott, I point out that our department's recent graduates have gone on to hold prestigious Fulbright fellowships, go to Columbia law school, open successful local businesses, and attend graduate programs in business, public health, human resources and, of course, anthropology.

Rather than suggesting that we don't need any more anthropologists here in Florida, we could look at how some highly successful corporations have utilized anthropologists to make more money. Intel, for instance, hired anthropologist Genevieve Bell to study how people around the world use technology, helping Intel snag access to coveted but previously untapped markets. Microsoft, IBM, Hewlett-Packard, and Xerox have also hired anthropologists for similar reasons. The anthropology major teaches not only rigorous critical thinking but also how people adapt to uncertainty, skills that should be valued in our current economic situation, with a state unemployment rate of 10.7%, 1.6% higher than the nationwide average.

It seems like the larger issue, though, is not just with anthropology majors but with the liberal arts more generally. Scott, like a state senator who recently attacked political science and psychology, seems to believe that only business, science, and technology can bring jobs to the state. As America scrambles to cling to its number one position in the midst of an economic slump, we've heard the call from many quarters to dismantle liberal arts educations in favor of science and technology. This is ironic in an era in which China and India are seeking to enhance their more technical educational systems with a liberal arts perspective. And it is also short sighted. Despite China's current world economic dominance, its own leaders have complained that the Chinese educational system fails to produce innovative, creative thinkers. One third of its recent graduates are unemployed, a fact many attribute to the lack of creativity and critical thinking that a purely rote, technological education fails to foster. To remedy this, China has begun adopting a liberal arts model in its newer universities. In India, for similar reasons, industrialists are investing millions of dollars into private liberal arts educations. G.V Suresh, a former anthropology major and head of HR and India operations for SonicWALL, a global Internet security company, calls the future for anthropology majors bright, saying in a major Indian newspaper that "sometimes candidates with [an] Anthropology background are preferred over MBAs." So, if Governor Scott wants to send the anthropologists out of state, along with other liberal arts majors, India and China may have a place for them.

 
 
 

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