Friday, December 02, 2011

What Republicans and Fidel Castro Have in Common

It's no secret that the humanities and social sciences are under assault, leaving supporters in the unhappy position of trying to explain why cutting them is bad for business (it is even a serious problem in Britain). Those who support the cuts argue that the so-called STEM disciplines are what we need instead. The overall argument is summed up very neatly by Florida Governor Rick Scott:

"You know, we don't need a lot more anthropologists in the state. It's a great degree if people want to get it, but we don't need them here," he said. 
Scott said students need to focus on studying subjects that can get them jobs—specifically in high-growth areas such as STEM. 
"I want to spend our dollars giving people science, technology, engineering, math degrees. That's what our kids need to focus all their time and attention on," he said. "So when they get out of school, they can get a job."

What's interesting is that these predominantly Republican calls to push everyone toward STEM are exactly the same as Fidel Castro's years ago, and for exactly the same reasons. We want people working, not thinking subversive abstract thoughts that don't lead to a trade.

University enrollments expanded greatly beyond the pre-1959 levels, and the focus of education changed, social sciences, and law, which prepared one for government positions, to the sciences, engineering, architecture, and agriculture to serve the larger needs of a socialist society (p. 93).
Thomas M. Leonard, Fidel Castro:  A Biography

There was a strong technical bias to higher education that encouraged enrolment in engineering and discouraged it in the humanities (p. 483).
Leslie Bethell, The Cambridge History of Latin America

The essential problem both with anti-humanities Republicans and Fidel Castro is that they view education as a zero-sum game: if we want to support STEM then we have to cut non-STEM. The far better solution is to support both, and to acknowledge the importance of both technical and non-technical degrees.


Ian Keenan 10:13 AM  

We need more anthropologists to conduct studies on Florida political culture.

Rosemary Joyce 10:45 AM  

Learning to think critically about social structures and histories? not surprising that politicians of all stripes find this uninteresting.

In the Florida case, responses from Florida anthropology students powerfully made the argument that the discipline is critical to the state's functions (and, it turns out, is counted as a STEM discipline in the state).

While like all my colleagues I was proud of these younger, passionate anthropologists, in my own blog post on this, I examined a wider range of issues raised by this attack and the category of anti-intellectual attacks it is part of.

I concluded that "Even if every anthropology major in the country ended up working in some field unrelated to the discipline itself, the training anthropology gives in reasoning, in questioning what is known and certain, is the most valuable thing about being an anthropology student or scholar."

And I think you can substitute other disciplines there-- even, maybe, French.

Justin Delacour 6:29 PM  

"We want people working, not thinking subversive abstract thoughts that don't lead to a trade."

This seems to presuppose that, if one studies something that does lead to a trade, that person is learning only to work, not to think. I personally don't think this is the line of defense that social scientists ought to be using.

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