The Daily Beast published a list this week of the “13 Most Useless Majors.” Coming in at #9 was Anthropology and Archaeology. The information they publish alongside their ranking is as follows:
Unemployment, recent grad: 10.5 percent
Unemployment, experienced grad: 6.2 percent
Earnings, recent grad: $28,000
Earnings, experienced grad: $47,000
Projected growth, 2010–2020: +21 percent
First, the last I checked, the US U3 unemployment rate was 8.2%, while the broader U6 measure of under/unemployment was at 14.5%. So the cited figures for employment rate for recent and experienced grads are pretty much in line with, if not below, U.S. averages. The earnings are on the low-end of college degree recipients, but one can safely assume that individuals pursuing Anthropology are not doing so for the money. The final stat is what I find remarkable, though…isn’t a 21% projected growth fairly large for a useless major?
My bigger issue with the list is simply that any knowledge (or college major if we want to view knowledge as a commodity) is useless unless you put it to use. Anthropology, particularly keeping in mind current trends in society, actually appears to me to be extremely and increasingly useful. The difference being that anthropology does not possess the kind of well-worn academic to career path and infrastructure as, say, an undergraduate business degree and entry-level banking positions or an undergraduate biological sciences major and the slave labor of graduate medical training. There are no business models developed around exploiting the labor of recent Anthropology graduates (unless you count coffee baristas…I kid). I am still relatively new at this, but in my 5+ years of teaching undergraduates my students have gone on to the following pursuits; medical school, nursing school, public health, law school, grad school in anthropology, peace corps, Teach for America, Fulbright awards, international NGO work and countless other jobs that I could not possibly keep track of. The “related occupations” (as described by the Daily Beast list) for Anthropology are much broader than “Anthropology and Archaeologist.”
In my courses I teach students on research and theory in the following areas: evolution, population genetics and genomics, the fossil record, human behavior, food and health, ethics, anatomy and osteology, quantitative methods, computer programming and the integration of scientific and humanistic knowledge structures. Additionally, any student pursuing anthropology at the graduate level is very likely going to get trained in at least one non-native language, spend considerable time abroad or in a novel environment, collaborate with peers across an array of international institutions, work between government, public and private institutions and spend copious amounts of time diligently thinking about how it is we come to know what we know about what it means to be human. I, for one, do not find those topics lacking relevance in contemporary society. Rather, I see them as skills likely to become more important as the world becomes more urban, more technological, more populated, more resource constrained and more international.
The challenge, as I see it, is not the “uselessness” of Anthropology but the difficulty in equipping students, at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, with the tools and perspective necessary to use the knowledge and skills developed in Anthropology effectively. A lot of the changes I have made to my teaching over the past year have been directed towards this issue. One of the goals for my classes these days is not only to convey the theory and knowledge base of Anthropology, but to do so in a way that imparts skills, techniques and models of application of that theory and knowledge. The model of go to college, do well, get a job, if it was ever true, has never been the model for Anthropology because of the diversity of careers and work that anthropologists engage in. Students should, if they are not already, be made aware of this, but this is not a condemnation of the value of the discipline. In a world in which the meaning of the word “career” is undergoing rapid change, the development of individually developed and applied knowledge that goes hand in hand with anthropology is a strength, not a weakness.
So perhaps The Daily Beast should look at #8 on their list, journalism, and do a little self-reflection (though I think more than ever we need more and better journalists).