Last week, Florida governor Rick Scott, a Republican, argued that anthropology degrees (which in the United States include archaeology) are losers in the job market and don’t deserve to be subsidized by taxpayers.
“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 to the Herald Tribune. “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.”
Naturally, this led to outcry from anthropologists, archaeologists, and even journalists, who noted that Scott’s own daughter has a degree in the field.
But, the thing is, Scott is probably, to a limited extent, right.
I have an anthropology degree, and I can say from firsthand experience that it really doesn’t open that many doors right now. Theoretically, anthropology should be helpful to the “vital interests” of business and government by helping decision-makers navigate a multicultural, global environment, though it is true that many decision-makers have yet to catch on to this. But to evaluate the value of an academic discipline based on current conditions is incredibly shortsighted.
Twenty years ago, the digital revolution was only just starting and few would have thought that studying video game design would be a viable life choice. And yet it became one. Thirty years ago, the business world was still in an industrial-era mindset, and few would have imagined that speculative finance or computer-aided business mathematics would become in-demand fields. And yet they did. Who, as late as the 1990s, would have imagined that Arabic and Middle Eastern studies would have enormous value in the coming century?
On the other hand, who as late as the 1980s would have doubted the importance of Russian language and Soviet studies to the “vital interest” of the United States? How did those degrees work out?
The point is that the future is highly fungible. We don’t know what will happen next. If we let the government dictate which degree programs are worthy of public financing and which are not, we will end up with generations of graduates educated for a job market that vanished before they ever entered college. Just as the Pentagon spent a century preparing to fight wars they already won, so too will government-supported degree programs always be years or decades behind current needs, and probably clueless about the future. If there is one thing we do know, it’s that modern American government is almost systemically incapable of changing with the times.
And, really, who would trust government to pick a winning major?
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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