Re: Defending Anthropology's Irrelevance

Ralph L Holloway (rlh2@COLUMBIA.EDU)
Mon, 12 Feb 1996 12:34:36 -0500

On Mon, 12 Feb 1996, SS51000 wrote:

> How do those of us who teach anthropology make it "relevant"? I
> carefully avoid trying to persuade students that anthropology has
> practical value (even though it sometimes does, of course). The harder
> we try to convince students of the uses of knowledge, the more we
> convince them--implicitly--that the only reason to value knowledge is
> for its (apparent) usefulness. This, at least at a liberal-arts
> institution, is perfectly self-defeating! We hope to instill a love of
> knowledge for its own sake, increasing the number of life-long learners
> out there. Ultimately, I believe that valuing knowledge for its own
> sake is a value with long-term survival value for our species. I
> elaborate this line of thinking in a little book, *Valuing Useless
> Knowledge* (Thomas Jefferson University Press, Kirksville, Missouri,
> 1995). --Bob Graber

Bob Graber's post about the value of knowledge for its own sake is a
welcome reflection upon the state of anthropology. When I reflect back to
35 years ago when I started graduate school, I thought anthropology was
the answer to just about evrything, and one of the most beautiful of
subject matters, because it combined both practicality (relativism among
them) and an unending, uncloying sense of exploration of the human animal
in any dimension imaginable. The thought of what to do with it besides
living a life respectful of other cultures very different than one's own
didn't really enter into my consciousness. After all, I was coming to it
from geology and engineering, very practical concerns, and was in the
middle of a nasty recession in 1959.
Off to graduate school, and the degree. Great opportunities in 1964,
and thence ensconced at Columbia, where one can actually work for
knowledge for its own sake, at least partially. About ten years ago,
however, the balancing act between teaching soc/cult graduate students
and undergraduates became evermore difficult. The jobs market dried up,
and knowledge for its own sake went to hell, and yes, even at the
undergraduate level. I am also the departmental representative for the
undergraduates and listen almost daily to their concerns about their
futures if they major or concentrate in anthropology. I have given up on
the graduate students because knowledge has no beauty for them, or at
least the few that still have that part of their soul intact are becoming
rarer each day. The undergraduates, however, I can definitely push toward
expanding their horizons and I encourage them to take all the
anthropology they can, particularly in soc/cult (including linguistics
even though the dept. doesn't have one any more), and of course,
physical. And you can see it on the advanced juniors' and seniors' faces
as they come to the realization that this phase in their lives is coming
to a rapid halt. This opportunity to acquire knowledge just because it
exists, is going to be put on hold while they square away with life's
realities in terms of what they do next. It's not easy for them, and I
never forget how lucky I've been to get immeshed into these systems at
the time that I did, and to HAVE THE LUXURY (for that is what it really is)
to continue to be a neural sponge...
Ralph Holloway