It’s official, anthropology’s useless!


Margaret Mead
How would Margaret Mead have fared on the Florida job market?

An article in Mother Jones, reports on comments Gov. Rick Scott of Florida made on conservative Florida talk show host Marc Bernier’s program on Monday. In the last minute of an 11 minute interview, Gov. Scott shifted from the usual conservative script about creating jobs with tax breaks and deregulation to the issue of what kind of education the state should be funding:

You know, we don’t need a lot more anthropologists in the state. 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, math degrees. That’s what our kids need to focus all their time and attention on. Those type of degrees. So when they get out of school, they can get a job.

Anthropology was the Governor’s prototypical example of the kind of liberal arts education that, in his opinion, doesn’t help its degree holders or the state economically.  As the article notes, this is in keeping with a more general hostility toward universities by Scott’s fellow party members in the Florida legislature, including the head of the state’s Policy and Steering Committee on Social Responsibility. Sen. Don Gaetz (R) (perhaps ironically, the representative for Niceville, FL) has reportedly called for universities to be accountable academically to the people by providing information to the legislature that it could use to make important decisions like “how many psychology departments the state needs within an 8-mile radius.”

The Mother Jones article’s author, Adam Weinstein, suggests that the real motivation behind this kind of conservative attack on the liberal arts is because it is more likely to produce citizens who are willing to question received truths and traditional values (itself a questionable premise, I reckon). Weinstein argues that by attacking liberal arts programs, conservatives can undercut the liberal opposition.  Whether or not this is the case, Weinstein is at least partly right when he indicates that there is evidence against the notion that undergraduate majors have much to do with the employability of graduates.

The New York Times Op-Ed that Weinstein points to as “a host of recent research” describes the results of surveys by the National Association of Colleges and Employers comparing the employment rates and starting salaries of students graduating from college. The results are a bit more complicated than Weinstein indicates.  In fact, there is a significant difference in the starting offers for students in “career-oriented” majors like computer science versus students in “academically oriented” majors such as history.  The studies account for this based on the specific training in specialized skills that particular industries require and which of those skills are currently in demand.

However, the op-ed describes that over the long term liberal arts students are able to apply their broader skill set to a “rapidly changing work environment.”

Once in a career path, the more general skills of communication, organization and judgment become highly valued. As a result, liberal arts graduates frequently catch or surpass graduates with career-oriented majors in both job quality and compensation. A longitudinal study conducted several years ago by the National Center for Educational Statistics found that the wage differentials that existed between career-oriented majors and academically oriented majors were all but eliminated within 10 years after graduation.

Leaving aside the implications of the language of flexibility for now, perhaps there is a better retort to the Rick Scotts of the world.  While the immediate job prospects of an anthropology student might not be as good as those of a comp-sci graduate, in an unpredictable economic environment, doesn’t it make sense to have a workforce with a wide set of skills, capable of “thinking outside the box” and so forth, instead of a workforce that is trained to do one thing really well?

I’m not usually one to use evolutionary metaphors, they rarely can be taken as far or as literally as their authors wish them to be, and they can inject an opinion with a false sense of scientific authority.  But, bearing these caveats in mind, I think there is a parallel lesson here.  Specialization is just one strategy for “survival”.  It involves a trade off of strategies for the exploitation of a broad range of environments for strategies that allow the efficient exploitation of a narrow niche.  Both strategies work, and over time evolution seems to swing between the two, specialists thriving when resources are relatively stable times generalists succeeding when they are unpredictable.  So it seems counterintuitive to suggest that during an uncertain economic period we should specialize our workforce without a clear idea of what specializations will be in demand in the future.

Then again, some of Gov. Scott’s colleagues would remind you that evolution is “just a theory.”