What Can Anthropology Do For You?

This past semester, for the first time since around my sophomore year of college, I enrolled in more courses outside of anthropology than within the field. At the same time I was interacting with young, naïve students on a regular basis. These circumstances really opened my eyes to the lack of cultural awareness and sensitivity. Two moments stand out in my mind.

Number One: This past semester I enrolled in a graduate-level history course focusing on Latin America. I got my syllabus and like any good student immediately began comparing Amazon and my school’s book prices. Unusually it wasn’t the price of the books that shocked me (although all together this course cost me over $200). The authors chosen for the course shocked me more than anything else. Get this. In my Latin American history course, not one author was Latin American. Not a single one. Think about that for a second. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

To further my frustration, on the first day of class as I sat in a room of 12 history graduate students, the only non-historian in the room, and introduced myself, I was asked if anthropologists felt bad for “contributing to colonialism” for so long. And, yes, that’s a direct quote from the professor. While the other students sat giggling at anthropology’s involvement in the colonial era, not one of them questioned the complete exclusion of Latin American voices from their own history.

This course made up the most difficult 3 hours of each week in which I was faced with un-checked ethnocentrism. I let my annoyance sit and burn for 16 weeks, but you better believe that my course evaluation represented a semester’s worth of frustration.

Number Two: I was a teaching assistant for an introductory anthropology course with between 70-90 students, depending on if it was test day or not. Being an intro course most students were freshmen or sophomores so some off-color comments were to be expected, but I was still amazed at the lack of cultural sensitivity. One student said in reference to people of Kalambayi in the DRC, “Don’t they know that having a lot of kids is bad? They just don’t understand that.” I was taken aback by this comment, but when you step back and think about it, this student had probably never thought about the cultural and societal benefits of having a lot of children. In his mind, everything is based on U.S. culture, life, and standards. He never considered the struggles that the people of Kalambayi face. Though I wish the professor would have addressed this comment and others like it more directly, I do think that the students came away from the course with, at least, a little bit of cultural relativism and sensitivity.

When I tell people than I’m an anthropologist I get two responses. ‘Oh like Indiana Jones?!’ or ‘Oh I took an anthropology class once’. Pretty much everyone takes an anthropology course to satisfy general education credits. It’s just a survey course that introduces the wide range of anthropological study. I used to groan when people told me this; students don’t really understand the importance of the field after that class. However, after dealing with 90 undergraduate students and 12 history graduate students for 16 weeks, my opinion has changed. Now more than ever I see the importance of anthropology and other cultural studies classes as required or encouraged for all majors. Sure, students don’t leave class thinking of anthropology’s role in military actions, history, or representing marginalized populations around the world, but that wouldn’t even be possible in a 16-week course. Instead I think the value of introductory anthropology courses doesn’t lie in knowledge of anthropology as a field. I think the value rests largely on the ability for students to understand and respect other cultures even if they seem strange at first. It was amazing to hear students question cultural practices without any understanding of the lives of the people at all or hear 12 graduate students suggest that Latin Americans don’t need to be present in their own history and that personal histories are essentially useless.

As globalization continues to bring people and cultures, from all over the world, together, I think it becomes even more important for students to learn the value of different cultures throughout the world and even within our own countries.

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