This post builds on the research article “Disciplinary Adaptation and Undergraduate Desire: Anthropology and Global Development Studies in the Liberal Arts Curriculum,” which was published in the May 2013 issue of the Society’s peer-reviewed journal, Cultural Anthropology.
Cultural Anthropology has published several articles on education including Tom Looser’s “The Global University, Area Studies, and the World Citizen: Neoliberal Geography’s Redistribution of the "World",” Eitan Wilf’s “Sincerity versus Self-Expression: Modern Creative Agency and the Materiality of Semiotic Forms,” and Sonia E. Alvarez, Arturo Arias, and Charles R. Hale’s, “Revisioning Latin American Studies.”
Cultural Anthropology has also published a number of articles on global development including Ami Samsky’s “Scientific Sovereignty: How International Drug Donation Programs Reshape Health, Disease, and the State,” Erica Caple James’s “Witchcraft, Bureaucraft, and the Social Life of US(AID) in Haiti,” and Victoria Bernal’s “Colonial Moral Economy and the Discipline of Development: The Gezira Scheme and “Modern” Sudan.”
Interview with Richard Handler
Lindsay Poirier: In your essay, you describe how “doing good” and “giving back” seem to represent the universal ethical principles and moral impulses that motivate students to work in development. At the same time, students repel the notion of “imposing” on culture. Are these principles and impulses characteristic of the current generation of undergraduates? In your opinion, how did these inclinations come to inhabit such a prominent space in the minds of undergraduate students?
RH: The idea that the public good should come from service that is generated by individuals instead of government is specific to the neoliberal moment. The idea that American-style philanthropy (“doing good” and “giving back”) is underpinned by a universal morality is a more general feature of modern, socio-evolutionary ideology, which has been a dominant strain in American culture (but not only in American culture) since the mid-19th century.
LP: In your essay you mention that the Global Development Studies program has become a “soft discipline," which draws in more female than male students. What other sorts of demographic trends characterize this discipline? Have you noticed variances in understanding or opinion amongst particular demographics?
RH: Well, impressionistically, GDS students, who are 80 percent female, can be ranged on a crude left-to-right axis. Of course, the “right” of this axis is probably closer to the American “center.” Truly right-wing students are not attracted to this major. But furthest left among my students are those who want to work as labor or neighborhood organizers, on the front lines, as it were, of progressive political action “at home.” On the other end of the spectrum are students who want to work within business to bring about change, either through “corporate social responsibility” or “social entrepreneurship.” In the middle are the students who want to work for NGOs, or in the Peace Corps or Teach for America. I don’t think this left-to-right axis can be easily correlated with familial wealth. Most of these students are upper-middle-class or better—typical, I suppose, of any elite American research university.
LP: Your essay outlines an undergraduate’s typical initial understanding of development. Is there value to addressing how pre-college education approaches the notion of development? What could be improved in K-12 education to better prepare students for understanding global development?
RH: The issue, treated by Daniel Segal in “’Western Civ’ and the Staging of History in American Higher Education” (American Historical Review 105:770-805, 2000), is that the socio-evolutionary narrative of history is built into not just the content but the structure of the American curriculum at all levels. So K-12 education may aspire to multicultural inclusion, but it does so without having critical awareness of the fact that Western notions of “world history” always presume a time-line in which non-whites are “behind” the modern West.
LP: Your essay makes several references to the undergraduate perception that an interdisciplinary education is key to becoming desirable in the job market. Could you describe some of your own perspectives on the benefits and drawbacks to offering an interdisciplinary education to undergraduate students – both in terms of skill development and wisdom development – as opposed to a focused disciplinary education? In your opinion, how might the global development industry change as universities produce more students with interdisciplinary backgrounds?
RH: I tried to argue that the very idea of “a” discipline has been hopelessly confused with the idea of an institutionalized organizational unit, which we usually call, at the local level, a “department.” Disciplines are in fact inter-disciplinary. To create a successful program at the undergraduate level outside a discipline means that you need to find a coherent intellectual focus around which to structure your curriculum. Anthropology, which draws its theory from a wide array of sources, is in a good position to do this: we understand the relationship of such varied authors as Marx, Durkheim, Weber, and Du Bois to the contemporary work we do. Our theoretical roots are deeply interdisciplinary. We can create coherent interdisciplinary undergraduate majors for our students. Now, selling this to employers is another matter altogether. There we probably have to borrow the “skills” rhetoric that they want. And of course it helps if our curricula can include some courses in methods, research, language training, and area studies—all of which can be presented to employers as “skills.”
LP: Through observation of student views, critical analysis of the role of social-cultural anthropology in global development studies, and a reflection on the politics and culture of university structures, your paper is very clearly oriented towards improving undergraduate education. Could you speak, more generally, on the value of analyzing these political and cultural structures in university settings, along with the value of conducting ethnography in one’s own academic department?
RH: The university is one of the few domains in American society where critical thought can flourish. But like most other major institutions, universities thrive on promotional discourses. Universities are in the business of credentialing the upper-middle classes. They derive much of their funding from people who have only a vague idea, and are highly suspicious of, “critical” thought. University administrators and faculty can easily succumb to their own promotional discourses. It becomes easy to use terms like “skills” and “global” as we protect our turf and justify our mission. We lose the ability to reflect critically on our own discourses. Yet, unthinking acceptance of commonsense discourse is the enemy (as it were) of critical thought. And anthropologists are in a better position to know this than scholars in many other disciplines. But the task of uncovering the hidden assumptions of university discourses and routines is not an easy one: like all institutions, universities need to be able to mystify their own workings so that the natives we absorb will become good citizens, only minimally disruptive. So it’s a real struggle, even for faculty who value “critical” thinking, to get students to think critically not merely about the books and subjects they are studying, but the structure of universities as institutions and curricula as cultural artifacts.
LP: Would you advise undergraduate students studying global development to read this essay? What do you think they could learn from it?
RH: Actually, I use a short version of the essay in my own teaching. It’s the first reading assignment in the first GDS core course. I tell students to read it and to refer to it throughout the semester, and their final assignment of that semester is to write a paper discussing, first, whether I was correct about their worldview, and second, how their worldview may have changed as they proceeded through the course readings and discussions.
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