We live in a rapidly changing society. So, too, with our college and university systems, which increasingly have modified themselves in response to changing societal needs and demands. When I was an undergraduate, Humanities was the most popular major on campus, and Anthropology wasn't far behind. And of course people would ask, "What can you do with an Anthropology major?" The question is still being asked of students today. A well-respected business magazine recently published a ranking of the ten worst college majors, and Anthropology was at the top of the list.
Why? Because Anthropology is seen as a 'bad consumer choice'. Statistically speaking, its pay-off isn't as high as 'Construction Services' or 'Hotel Management' (both majors now at many colleges and universities), and so Anthropology should be avoided. At least that's how the thinking goes. And there is some legitimacy to it, as statistics show that an Anthropology major is less likely to find employment immediately after graduation than is a pharmacist; and an Anthropology major's first-job earning potential, moreover, will be less than the pharmacist's.
Surprisingly lacking in these and similar rankings is any substantive discussion of what counts as a quality college education. Cannot a case be made that the Anthropology major might be better read than the Pharmacist, perhaps having received a educational breadth that includes questions about human institutions, cultural differences, morality, interethnic communication, to name only a few? And might not the kinds of knowledge learned by the Anthropology major translate into better parenting skills, better workplace skills, better citizenship skills? Measuring the chemical contents of a pill has some value in our society, to be sure; but how might this contribute to good parenting or good citizenship?
Such questions seem to have little salience in our increasingly commodified society. We seem to care not so much about learning, but earning. Think like a consumer, not as a young, budding scholar of the world. For statistics show....
But what statistics don't show is that every individual who enters college is a unique human being. Although statistics may show certain odds of economic success upon graduation for certain majors, there really are no guarantees. True, there may not be a whole lot of anthropology jobs waiting out there for college grads, but there are many jobs across public and private sectors that call for young men and women who can think clearly about complex human problems, and who can demonstrate potental to draw upon their knowledge and critical thinking skills along the way toward solving those problems. Being able to observe social and communication patterns in a dysfunctional workplace through the eyes of someone familiar with a vast range of human culture and practice, might very well translate into a highly valued skill. It might also very well translate into being an interesting person -- one who is thoughtful, reflective, and able to listen to and empathize with those who have opposing viewpoints. Just how interesting is the pharmacist or the accountant in these regards?
For individuals who are deciding upon college, one's first and foremost task should be to get accepted by the best college or university out there relative to one's own skills and potential. Most universities and colleges are not scam artists. To say that they are is to be either ignorant or disingenuous. The top-level schools are still in the business of teaching and research. The better the school, the more likely students are to have professors who care deeply about teaching and research. The better the school, the more likely students will find other students who care about the discovery of new ideas and taking those ideas out into the world and doing good things with them. In the better schools, students will not feel themselves trapped in a culture where fellow students only think about 'getting the degree so that they can go into the "real world" in order to make money'. Nor will they find themselves seated before a professor who feels his or her only task is to pass students along so they can graduate and go make money.
An individual who gets accepted by Harvard or a UC should make every effort to attend such magnificent institutions of learning. College years are among the most important of one's life. One's choice of a college or major really should not be reduced to a commodities equation. These schools, acknowledging a student's talent and potential, will help with scholarships, grants, work study, and, yes, loans. The kinds of professors one has, the kinds of students one meets, the kinds of stimulating classroom environment one finds oneself in, all will contribute immensely to the kind of person one develops into. The recommendation that one reduce one's learning potential to one's earning potential is a deeply cynical one that indicates how far some of us have fallen into the consumerist trap with all it's ridiculously reductionist 'free market' ways of thinking.
Despite those who believe all human equations are reducible to dollar signs, ideals such as truth, justice, and beauty still exist in the world. We may not see ample evidence of them on the television screen or other media venues, as they seem to have been pushed aside by money matters. But they are wondrous ideals, and without them we cheat ourselves out of the potential to become something more than a mechanical worker who earns a better-than-average paycheck but little more. They speak to the potential quality of human life experiences as we engage in collective action aimed at uplifting the lives of us all.
As I say these things, I mean not to denigrate the hard sciences which are becoming evermore important to survival of our species. But geologists or marine biologists who address complex issues of global warming need rely increasingly upon public policy analysts, sociologists, and, yes, even anthropologists who, for example, are now being called upon to address complex cultural issues associated with mass migration of dislocated human populations. I hope I am accurate in my belief that we want those in pursuit of saving the planet choosing their colleges and majors not for the sake of earning a salary farther down the line, but rather for the sake of learning something with which they can contribute to the world.