What draws us to anthropology (and why an anthropological education matters)

Here are the questions, right up front and center: 1) What drew you to anthropology?; 2) What does anthropology offer that might be missing from our education systems? 3) How and why should we teach anthropology (in the academy and outside of it)? 4) When it comes to teaching anthropology at the college/university level, what works--and what doesn't?


I just read this post by Michael Wesch and it got me thinking about the reasons why I ended up in anthropology. About what drew me in. One particular line of Wesch's essay reminded me what life was like back in high school: "To get through high school I simply skimmed. I read for key plot lines and characters – just enough to pass the pop quizzes. I might have enjoyed reading if I had tried it, but growing up in the anti-intellectual environment of a small Nebraska town, not-reading was an essential mark of being cool."

Things were the same for me. When I was in high school, all of my friends were surfers. We surfed; that's what we did and what we cared about. Reading, learning, and even doing well in school were definitely not high priorities for us. We openly resisted high school every chance we could.  Like Wesch, I skimmed through high school, only doing the minimum necessary to get by. Mostly, I just couldn't wait until it was over.

And then one day it was.

So began my slow journey to anthropology, which was fueled, primarily, by my growing realization I didn't quite know as much as I thought I did. I have written about this in various other places (see this and this). Here's the short version: When I finished high school there were massive chasms in my knowledge of humanity--this includes global history, but also, equally importantly, local histories as well. I emerged from my high school education thoroughly clouded the bubble of my own world, which was reinforced by at least two things 1) an educational curriculum that was heavily Western- and US-centric (which also, importantly, did not cover local histories in any meaningful way); and 2) my own stubborn resistance to the education process itself, which was filled with busywork, tedium, and rote memorization at the expense of engagement, creativity, and depth. I expressed my frustration through a sentiment often heard from young folks: "I hate school."

It wasn't until a few years after high school that I began to question my own resistance to learning. Re-reading JD Salinger's Catcher in the Rye, of all things, was the spark that set me off.  That's when I began to rethink my own education, the world in which I live, and my place in it.  It's a process that hasn't stopped yet. Sometimes, though, I wish I'd started sooner.

It wasn't until I enrolled in community college that I realized just how much was missing.  I started in photography, then eventually found my way to anthropology and archaeology. That was my introduction to Wolf's "people without history." I soon found out that the historical erasures and blind spots of my education were global and local all at once. I learned about California history in high school like everyone else, including all of that business about missions and gold rushes, but nothing about the 10,000 years of human history that preceded the arrival of European explorers (let alone the brutal histories and events that took place after). My classes in archaeology started to open up so much, and they led me to ask questions about the world around me, including "Well, if there were Native Americans throughout what is now the territory of the US today, were there also Native people who once lived where I grew up?" Indeed, of course, there were.  And so the lights turned on in my mind, and the landscape of "Indian Reservations" in San Diego County took on new meanings. That was a key moment, when I began to question just about everything I had been taught.

There was another key moment that took place once I'd transferred to UC Santa Cruz. In high school, I learned about "world history" like any other kid, but my education was curiously devoid of any local connections. This made history feel like it was something that happened "out there" in the ether of other times, people and places.  There was no direct meaning to any of it. My high school history classes certainly made no mention of the processes and histories that led to mass migration of Mexican labor to my own home town.  While taking a course at Santa Cruz about Latin American immigration, I was introduced to the work of anthropologist Leo Chavez (via his book Shadowed Lives). The most striking part of Chavez's book, for me, was his discussion about the migrant labor camps in my hometown. They were not far from where I lived, and, as Chavez documents, they were razed (and all the people were removed) in the early 1990s--during my high school years. I had no clue about any of it.

These kinds of erasures have certain political effects. When we don't know who came before us, or how certain people ended up where they are, it becomes easier to justify present conditions via a number of dubious arguments. My studies in anthropology have been motivated, almost entirely, by the things I wasn't told (or, conversely, didn't care to think about or learn about, which is another part of the equation) when I was younger. Anthropology can, I think, play a powerful role not only in "filling in the gaps" of our education systems, but also by presenting alternative views and perspectives about what it means to be human. More than anything, my own experiences inside and outside academia have shown me just how valuable anthropological perspectives can be, and why teaching anthropology matters.  And yet, my experiences in Higher Ed have made me question how we teach--what works, what doesn't, and how we need to make changes and adjustments in order to, effectively, get anthropology into more hands (and minds).

This is my long way of asking: What drew YOU into anthropology? (and a couple more questions, all listed at the top of this post)

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I randomly took medical anthropology at university and within two weeks decided that I would be an anthropologist. It was eye-opening getting to learn about other people's perspectives from the ground level, not just from a distance as was usually the case in geography and history. It made me realize how much there is to know about people.

For me, anthropology's biggest pedagogical promise is to help people think critically about the world around them, understand that there are many ways of living in it, and not default to the idea that their own norms are the right norms and everyone should live under those norms.

This is the central point no matter whether we're teaching formally in university, writing for the public, or having casual conversations in which people ask us about what we do.

Thanks Erin. You know what's interesting to me? None of what I am saying comes as a surprise to anyone who has been trained in or studied anthropology--thinking critically about the world, understanding that there are many ways of living, questioning the "default" that our own ideas are right or normal. But what amazes me is how often people are drawn to and interested in the perspectives of anthropology (once they are introduced to it), but how so few actually know what it is.  In intro classes this happens all the time--students often love the concepts and coverage of anthropology, but many of them admit that they didn't really know much about anthropology before taking the class. Something similar happens outside academia as well. I've often wondered why this is the case (anthro is appealing, but many haven't heard of it).

Suggest a look at k-12 education, especially high-school for college-bound kids. My own experience is likely totally out of date, but when I set off for Michigan State in 1962, I knew that I should study more math, science, languages, and history, and, thanks to a neighbor's birthday gift of a set of books titled 20th Century Philosophy, philosophy, too. It wasn't until the end of my junior year, when I was planning to stay in East Lansing for the summer, that a friend suggested I take an anthro course taught by Marc Swartz. Until then taking anthro had never crossed my mind.

John, I guess the thing is figuring out how to make anthro cross more people's minds, no?

Related to this post, check out the latest from Jason Antrosio:


Here's the kicker: "The point of anthropology taking over the world might rather go back to the volume on Articulating Hidden Histories, in the sense that it is anthropology’s task to articulate the stories and histories that no one else has been willing to hear."

And then this from Trouillot:

"The populations we traditionally study are often those most visibly affected by the ongoing polarization brought about by the new spatiality of the world economy. They descend directly from those who paid most heavily for the transformations of earlier times. . . . We are particularly well placed to document these effects on the lived experience of real people everywhere, but especially among those who happen to be the ones most disposable from the viewpoint of capital. The need to renew our topical interests is real, but it should not lead into the temptation to aestheticize the native or to study only natives that suddenly look like us. We cannot abandon the four-fifths of humanity [seen] as increasingly useless to the world economy, not only because we built a discipline on the backs of their ancestors but also because the tradition of that discipline has long claimed that the fate of no human group can be irrelevant to humankind."

Ryan, I partially agree. Articulating the stories and histories that no one else has been willing to hear is, however, only part of what anthropology does as part of the broadest (worldwide, everywhere) and deepest (from hominids to homo saps)description of the human condition offered by any academic discipline, stories of personal vision quests and the rise and fall of civilizations from non-elite perspectives. I don't know about people now, but I didn't get into anthropology for human interest stories with a touch of National Geographic.

The part of me that has worked in advertising steps up and wants to add a thought. Everything we've said so far is concerned with messaging. What about how the message gets delivered? Where's the media plan? How do you cut through the clutter and make a difference with small and shrinking resources? Should we be thinking of guerrilla marketing?

thank you Ryan for that debate. Firts of all, my name is Nathalie Puex and I am a PHd in antropology from the Sobrbonne Nouvelle in Paris but I work at the Flacso Argentina. I'm not a graduate in anthropology but in sciences Poltiques from Grenoble where I discovered anthropology through my public policy design classes. 

In Argentina, a lot of anthropologists work in highschools, and anthropology is teached, but I'm not really shure that this is a great deal for the teenagers! If the teacher is great, it's a cool classe, and if not it is boring one. I think it is a very important discipline, but it is not easy to teach to young students if the purpose of it is to understand not how society once lived (as it is mostely teached) but how societies do imagine and live there lifes today! So anthropology is the fancy classe, the one you enjoy just because it s about stories, but not about problems. I am working in a master that has more and more students. In a hand I am glad because it means that they are interested by the discipline, but in an other hand I notice that they want the exotic o fun that they imagine anthropology is, but not the complexety and the new universe of anthropology wich is not only the exotic or exclusivly the margins of the society. And that is just what is usualy teached iun the classroom and some time even at the university at least here! It is true that the resources are shrinking, but is that our only difficulty? When I teach, I always truy to understand what motivated my students to do a master in anthropology when most of them  come from other horizons, so I learn every day somthing new about the imaginary life of our discipline that I ignored and find it very interesting! My problem often is to translate that expectations to a cours that satisfies them and is meaningful for anthropology.

I was drawn to anthropology because I also love history. I think that it adds the human aspect to history. I think that our education system in the U.S. could use a smattering of anthropology at various points in the K-12 years. It could also use more history. Unfortunately, our policymakers do not see the value. I think it would add to understanding our culture of "e pluribus unum."  As for the actual methods of teaching it on the K-12 levels, I would suggest that making it a "hands on" activity, adjusted to the development stage of the age group being taught. As for teaching at the college level, I found that interactive classes were the most interesting and rewarding. Strictly lecture is boring and kinesthetic learners like myself have a hard time focusing. 

It has been over 25 years since I was in college. I hope teaching methods have improved!

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