[If you are remotely interested in anthropology you may have seen the recent flurry of activity regarding Florida Governor Rick Scott's slew of slander of said discipline (e.g. "we don't need anymore anthropologists here"). Governor Scott thinks we should only educate kids in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) disciplines. This is a note to Governor Scott from what would be one of his favored/favorite students.]
Governor Scott, you would love me. Not only am I a STEM major (two “hard sciences:” biological sciences major, chemistry minor), I am an excellent STEM major. As a senior, my GPA for my core biological science courses is a 4.12 (that’s a four not a three). Somehow I managed to barely survive “killer” organic chemistry (three As and a B). I just finished the highest-level physics class I’ll take in college, my lowest exam grade? 100 (full disclosure: it was actually just a 95 + 5 bonus points). I am an honors student, on track to graduate something-cum-laude, and I have even been invited by professors to work in their labs. Governor Scott, I’m sure you would also love that I want to be a physician. What a great, hands-on, understandable, non-threatening professional profession!
Now don’t stop reading just yet, this isn’t about me patting myself on the back. The reason I don’t feel immodest saying stuff like that is because, well, those numbers and words mean next to nothing, and reflect little to no accomplishment of…uh…anything. In fact, not only do they not reflect any real accomplishments, they don’t even really reflect the presence of useful knowledge in my overcrowded-but-still-mostly-useless brain.
Now I only call my brain “mostly” useless because, buried in there somewhere, fighting for electrical stimulation between “what is the difference in the spicules that make up the structure of Demosponges vs. those of Calcareous sponges” and “how to alpha-brominate carboxylic acids using the Hell-Volhard-Zilinskii Reaction” (and all of the other ridiculous, though impressive-sounding, garbage I’ve memorized only to mentally vomit onto exam papers for the last 10 or so years) are some actually useful skills and pieces of knowledge–those that I learned in English, philosophy, and by far-and-away most importantly, anthropology courses.
It wasn’t my knowledge of titration curves, Michaelis-Menten kinetics, or worm anatomy that allowed me to be a productive intern for a U.S. medical NGO working in Iraq–no, that would be writing skills (English and writing-intensive anthropology courses), critical reasoning (anthropology and, to a lesser extent, philosophy courses), ability to perform ethnographic research and draw on anthropological theory to produce models for healing and peacemaking programs (between Sunnis and Shias, Americans and Iraqis, Arabs and Kurds, etc.) in Iraq (that would be anthropology, anthropology, and more anthropology). It was those skills, not trigonometry, that led that NGO to invite me back to lead the next summer’s internship team, and to stay on and serve as a research consultant for them. It wasn’t even my math or science courses that taught me how to calculate P values for statistical significance in a report on risk factors for congenital birth defects that a colleague and I prepared for the First Lady of Iraq (good thing I had been reading and studying medical anthropology methods). Of course, just like you Gov. Scott, the business-degreed director of the NGO didn’t really know what (or if) an anthropologist could contribute to his organization when I first applied, but it didn’t take him long to want to keep an anthropologist around.
There’s more. It’s not science, technology, engineering, or mathematics that makes me a pleasant coworker and employee in the regular service-industry jobs I’ve worked in college, it’s anthropological principles like cultural relativism and the social/cultural determinants of behavior that actually provide intellectual tools for being more pleasant, patient, and understanding in everyday interactions. I also have the good fortune of being able to travel to our nation’s capital this weekend to present on a panel about academic praxis (practically applying theory and research) with two far more experienced and older individuals than I–another exciting resume bullet that owes not to my own ability but to learning anthropology.
I shudder to think what I would be like now had I not stumbled upon an Introduction to Anthropology course to fill an elective time-slot in my schedule as an underclassman. In fact, my biggest collegiate regret is that I didn’t bite the bullet, lose some credit-hours, and switch my major to anthropology when I could.
My goals haven’t changed–I still want to be a (“scientifically excellent”) physician, and I still want to work with underserved communities. Only now I’m much more prepared. Is it really any coincidence that so many medical schools are excited to accept students who have worked in the social sciences and humanities? Because of my studies in anthropology I have real-world experience in working with patients, in interviewing them and their families, in critically thinking about the issues they face (hey, that sounds a lot more like what most physicians actually spend their time doing than does worm anatomy or Kinetics). I am a more proficient communicator, a better critical thinker, quite well-read, and have far more directly applicable skills for having studied some anthropology.
Governor Scott, if you want to make your university system a place that produces first-rate graduates across many disciplines (including STEM), don’t take anthropology away from your undergraduates. Teach every undergraduate anthropology.