College Budget Cuts: How Course Corrections Can Undermine Students

Governor Scott of Florida has decided to save taxpayers’ money by developing a way to ensure that people who study under state auspices in Florida do so in programs that will secure jobs. The way to do this, he says, is to stop training students to get degrees in subjects such as psychology and anthropology–especially anthropology, a subject I’ve taught at Rutgers for many years.

We never know with complete confidence what will work to support and dignify a society and how what we do now will affect the future. If the past is prologue, then studying anthropology can help build a thriving society.  And studying behavior and how the brain responds to different stimuli is an important cog in the wheel of the social contract.  Even so, a plague on both their houses – the anthropologist’s thatched one and the Governor’s marble one.

As for anthropology, the major culprit as the governor tells it, everyone knows that the anthropological profession is hardly without responsibility for what some non-authorities think of it. It has been moseying down a post-modern path and losing its traditional passionate quest for the story of human nature. To a degree beyond caricature, it has been burdened with leaders burning with the fever of political correctness.

Bitter struggles have erupted between anthropologists who essentially see their discipline as a kind of cultural-literary pursuit and others who insist it is part of natural science – after all, there is a real animal involved. And who is responsible for the study of the other primates? Aren’t those anthropologists who can’t read Foucault entitled to respectful and informed scrutiny? Major departments have split over this issue, which is irritating and tiresome. And anthropology has come to epitomize the bizarre even hilarious distinction universities make between natural and social science.

Social Behavior Is Not Natural?

Of course, decisions and judgments have to be made about public expenditure. There is a very broad national questioning about the role and value of higher education in general even among business and engineering graduates. For example, there has long been evidence that a significant number of STEM (science, technology and math) graduates end up not doing what they were trained for but rather work in sales, community relations, management and the like. Specific curricula are not necessarily essential to what students end up doing. But for the Governor to polish up his rearview mirror and decide that he can predict what jobs will need to be filled in the future is beyond risky – it’s a surefire business plan for training our young to craft buggy whips.

One can be as dyspeptic as any Governor who sees low-hanging budgetary fruit to snatch. But when confronted with the task of this article, we are obligated to ask, wouldn’t the disgraceful and stupid violation of American banking and civic responsibility have been ameliorated or entirely avoided if Angelo Mozillo of Countrywide and Killington of WAMU had studied some anthropology? A course or two might have clarified the links between immediate money gratification and the destruction of the seed corn, which early tribes knew they had to husband – their capital.

The Governor does make the excellent point that students should be made aware of the possible career implications of their courses of study, and there should not be an automatic assumption that putting in the academic time will yield cash enough to buy a used Ford Focus. But politicians should be wary about guiding the young into allegedly lucrative professions. Even MBA’s and lawyers are on the streets desperately hunting for jobs. So will Florida shutter its business and law schools?

Perhaps the Governor is driven to challenge degrees in anthropology because his daughter has one. But whatever her life is like and how intriguingly she makes use of what she learned at university, the fact is countless graduates of programs such as hers are employed in grown-up corporations, government, the military, and the like. The perspective they bring to bear is not necessarily directly money in the bank (though it is in marketing) but rather one which induces conservative caution about human actions, a caution which can protect capital by avoiding its unduly confident expenditure.

There is good reason to sympathize with politicians looking at university budgets and wondering which cuts to advocate. That’s their job. However, it is also the job of university leaders to know about their system even if they often do so with remarkable fuzziness. Policymakers may not be able to predict how English majors end up producing voice identification technology, or how anthropologists studying child abuse can relate such abuse to kinship patterns. Informing social workers and the criminal justice system about these patterns can avoid human pain and save taxpayer money. And certainly it is not unreasonable to ask why so many thousands of psychologists are graduating these days, flooding the market and keeping salaries low.

Oddly, perhaps the free market of ideas is working. Students need more information about the likely future benefits of what they study. Yet even now when such benefits  are very poorly and cautiously made available to them, they nevertheless make judgments about their futures, however clumsily, and pick courses with some measure of good sense. They should be able to do so better and earlier. And so the Governor’s spotlight on the matter is useful.

And even in tourist-state Florida, hazy romantic tales of cultural history, for example, about very early dwellers along the coasts, may fascinate as many investors or depositors or visitors as the existing A-team of cardiologists and diet doctors. To say nothing of the neo-tribal theme-park spectacles which prosper in Orlando and generate plenty of revenue out of thin or thick human fantasy.

Lionel Tiger

Lionel Tiger

Lionel Tiger is Darwin Professor of Anthropology Emeritus at Rutgers and the author of many books, including "The Decline of Males."

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