|I guess it could be worse.|
While I do not have much use for a system that ranks fields of intellectual inquiry, if I were being forced to choose one social science to place above the others, it would obviously be Anthropology. Shocking, I know, but wait! This is not merely yet another case of an overly sensitive, ego-maniacal Anthropologist (which admittedly, there are plenty of) angrily protesting that "my field is the best one". Well, at least I hope not.
I considered myself a student of the social sciences generally prior to selecting a specific discipline to focus on. I took courses in History, Psychology, Sociology, Political Science, and yes, Economics, prior to landing on Anthropology. Given my experiences, the choice seemed clear. Anthropology you see encompasses ALL of the other social sciences. Any well rounded Anthropologist will tell you that in order to draw serious inferences about human beings and cultures you need to have some sort of understanding of their historical narratives, societal norms, political structure, exchange systems, religious practices, and on and on and on. This is why Anthropology is referred to as "holistic" in approach.
So why then, would Economics be considered a more practical or sound field of study? From an Anthropological perspective, studying economic principles outside of the context of the wider systems of belief and practice of groups would be absolutely meaningless! Yet, of course, that is what some economists attempt to do. And there it is. Economics attempts to create models and specific theories which can be applied to all human beings and societies, and to make predictions based upon those models. In that sense, I suppose it is similar to basic forms of mathematics and some of the "hard" sciences. And somehow, our society has come to believe that knowledge and information is only worthwhile if it can be simplified and applied everywhere. If it involves a lot of interpretation or is soft, well then obviously it is of no use! How will politicians grab onto it and turn it into campaign slogans?!
We're not even on the chart!
Of course, I have been dealing with this for years and, though it can be annoying, it has always seemed whiny to even talk about it. Oh poor little Anthropologist! Society thinks you are less important, boo hoo! It is a little pathetic sounding. So why now?
This summer I am going to be teaching Economics to high school students. That's right...I have crossed over to the dark side. And in my adventures prepping this Economics class I have found some troubling things hiding within the curriculum. Economics, at least in New York State public schools, is a course that presents certain things as simple facts or as "the way things are." One of these things is the idea that human beings are rational actors, who will always weigh the costs and benefits to themselves prior to making decisions. Good old Homo Economicus - which Anthropologists have been battling for years! Another is that the laws of supply and demand are sacrosanct - they always apply of course! I could go on but, I do not want to.
Happily, given my broad array of social science knowledge, I feel comfortable teaching these ideas as ideas, ones that have been disputed and that do not comfortably apply to all human societies. But, even looking at the curriculum troubled me. What if I did not have this background knowledge? What if I, like most people teaching Economics in a high school Social Studies Department, was a history major who became dizzy at the mere sight of a supply curve?
|Instead of just annoyed...|
Most likely those teachers would stick to the curriculum and materials supplied to them. Their students would graduate high school with a firm belief in the validity of foundational theoretical models of Economics (or more likely, no memory of it at all...so boring), and we would have yet another generation of Americans with a simplistic understanding of systems of exchange and their relation to wider cultural practices and beliefs! All because somewhere along the way (let me guess...Cold War Era?) the US decided that it was essential for our youngest citizens to learn to be good little capitalists instead of students of humanity as a whole.
In short, yes students need to learn about capitalist market operations - that is part of their experience. Does that mean they should all be taking a class in Economics, but NOT one in Anthropology (or even Sociology)? Absolutely not.