Monday, February 16, 2015

Archaeology: The Ideal Liberal Education

I've long thought that archaeology has the potential to offer students an ideal liberal education. Consider this:
  • archaeology is a social science, so to be an archaeologist, you need to know something about society, social theory, and human behavior. 
  • archaeology is also one of the humanities because it is a historical science, so a student needs to know something about history too.
  • archaeology is a natural science as well, so you need to know about the scientific method, research design, sampling, and hypothesis testing to carry out research.
  • archaeology has a significant mathematical component: we use statistics constantly, but we also use geometry, for example, when we make maps, which we do all the time. Spatial analysis, seriation, design analysis, and many other tasks we perform require mathematics more than statistics. 
  • archaeological science includes forays into chemistry, physics, and a host of allied fields in the natural and applied sciences.
  • zooarchaeology and paleoethnobotany require a knowledge of the natural environment in general as well as the specifics of zoology and botany.
  • archaeologists use their knowledge of soils and geomorphology to find sites and understand their development and structure.
  • archaeologists study the paleoclimate and the paleoenvironment, which obviously requires some understanding of those fields, including a dose of isotope chemistry.
  • archaeologists study geology not only to understand soils and geomorphology but also to find sources of raw materials, such as chert, obsidian, potting clay, marble, metals, and so forth.
  • epigraphy is the branch of archaeology dedicated to the study of inscriptions; inscriptions are texts, with all that implies for textual analysis and hermeneutics.
  • archaeologists study art: we study art history and we analyze the style of artifacts.
  • archaeologists study architecture--mostly from the perspective of architectural history but sometimes from an engineering perspective as well.
  • archaeologists must learn how to write well because the final product of any archaeological research is not a pile of artifacts or a bag of soil samples, but rather a report, article, or monograph.
  • archaeologists have to learn to play well with others. Archaeology is a collaborative undertaking: we never work alone. This requires interpersonal skills and often managerial ability--if you're in charge.
  • archaeology requires meticulous work but also a broad, integrative vision that allows one to synthesize ideas from all these different fields.
I am delighted to find I am not the first person to come to this conclusion.
From another point of view the subject [archaeology] should be considered; it gives a more truly “liberal education” than any other subject, as presently taught. A complete archaeological training would require a full knowledge of history and art, a fair use of languages, and a working familiarity with many sciences. The one-sided growth of modern training, which produces a B.A. who knows nothing of natural science, or else a B.Sc. who knows nothing of human nature, is assuredly not the ideal for a reasonable man. Archaeology,—the knowledge of how man has acquired his present position and powers—is one of the widest studies, best fitted to the open mind, and to produce that type of wide interests and toleration which is the highest result of education.
Sir W. M. Flinders Petrie (1904). Methods & Aims in Archaeology. London: Macmillan and Co., p. viii.

Flinders Petrie was an Egyptologist of great distinction and was arguably something of a polymath himself. Note the description of the two cultures, over 50 years before C. P. Snow would formalize the idea.

Archaeologists have not made much of an effort to promote their field, particularly at the undergraduate level, as the paragon of a liberal education, or as anything else. We remain a small field, content with the few students who are really interested in being archaeologists. Meanwhile,  large departments prepare hoards of students in Communications, Business, Political Science, and Criminal Justice. I hope there are strong job markets in those fields because I would hate to think that those students are not finding jobs. We should remember that an American undergraduate education is designed as a general liberal education, not primarily as pre-professional training.

Today we witness policy makers and politicians pushing for increased STEM education. They usually hawk their prescriptions as engines of innovation, entrepreneurship, and job creation. Anyone who believes this does not have a very realistic or accurate view of either education or business. Success in business, whether as an employee or an entrepreneur, requires a broad range of skills from a variety of disciplines, including the humanities, sciences, and social sciences. Studying STEM fields alone is not an effective or efficient way of promoting innovation or entrepreneurship. Real innovation requires an understanding of society, psychology, aesthetics, and other matters that you will not find in mathematics, engineering, and physics classes. Walter Isaacson makes this case persuasively, albeit anecdotally, in his recent book The Innovators.

I have no doubt that experts in many disciplines will claim that their fields are as broad as archaeology. A few other fields probably are, but they are the exception rather than the rule. Archaeology remains a distinct anomaly, which is also why archaeologists are usually scattered among multiple departments at most American universities. That is probably one reason we have difficulty promoting our discipline as anything in particular, much less the great liberal education it truly can be.

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