I taught an introductory course in anthropology for several years while finishing up my Phd at the University of Oklahoma. I have taught other classes in archaeology including Great Discoveries, North American Archaeology, and World Heritage sites. I feel that I have had the greatest impact on students in my Intro to Anthropology classes. Most of these students were only taking the course to satisfy a humanities credit. However, for most of them this course was and will be their only exposure to the concepts of culture, cultural diversity, identity, the concept of race, human evolution, past cultures, and modern cultures. These are all extremely important topics that I believe all Americans should be exposed to as part of their general education.
I was listening to NPR early in the morning while driving to a dig site to meet the crew at 6:45 a.m. The radio had my full attention for over an hour. One of the news segments discussed the controversy of Mexican-American classes being taught in Arizona. I think ethnic study classes are great for providing students with a sense of history and identity.
However, rather than teach specific ethnic classes why not give anthropology a try? Teaching the four subfield approach of anthropology in either Middle School or High School curriculum would provide all students with a holistic view on culture. In biological anthropology students would learn about the origins of our species, and how race is not a valid biological concept. The archaeological section of the class would demonstrate the long history of the creation and change in cultures throughout the world. From linguistics, students could learn how language shapes culture and is a marker of identity. Cultural anthropology would enlighten students to the diversity in modern cultures and how this diversity is a hallmark of our species, and how culture continuously changes and impacts our daily lives.
The lack of cultural awareness, and knowledge of our history as a species for graduating seniors is sad. U.S History taught in high schools typically focuses only on the recent Euroamerican time period with very little mention of past Native American groups and the over 12,000 years of Native American history. At my high school in Oklahoma we had only a half of a semester devoted to Oklahoma history taught by a coach, and the other half was Drivers Ed. We also spent a lot of that semester outside playing softball.
Teaching evolution in schools would be a sensitive subject in many states, but students need this education regardless if it conflicts with their religious beliefs. Studying evolution would demonstrate to students that even though we have many different beliefs today, we all come from the same place. Evolution is often poorly misunderstood and students with different religious belief systems could become better educated about evolution rather than assuming incorrectly that evolution equates to “survival of the fittest” or that “humans evolved from monkeys”.
Conflicts over education normally boils down to conflicts over identity. The development of ethnic classes is important to show the importance and value of cultures that do not dominate culture today. I argue that anthropology can enlighten students to cultural awareness from a broader perspective than more specific ethnic courses, and that this is a necessary part of the education system for all students.