This post was authored by Leslie Walker, project manager, AAA public education initiatives.
A cultural anthropology course is the most important class any undergraduate student can take. This statement may seem quite bold and challenge the perceptions held by students who are not majoring in the discipline, but here I will explain how such a brave statement is valid. This essay details my experience as an undergraduate anthropology student and now a professor of anthropology. This writing may not reflect others’ experiences; however, I do believe that every student who takes an anthropology course will reap substantial benefits that will significantly influence their course of study.
When I entered my first semester of college, I immediately declared myself as a biology major. I intended on working on wildlife conservation efforts in the Amazon. In planning my second semester of college, I enrolled in my first anthropology course, Introduction to Cultural Anthropology. I knew that many indigenous groups lived in the rainforests, so I decided to take this course to gain cultural competency. I wanted to get an understanding of what I would need to interact with people of other cultures. However, I did not know that enrolling in this elective course would lead to me becoming so enamored with the discipline that I would change my academic major.
In studying cultural anthropology, I learned more than just how to interact with people from different cultures; I learned how globalization influences cultures. It was in my cultural anthropology class that I found out that wildlife conservationists and other scientists were not the only groups of people embarking on expeditions to the rainforest. No, because of our globalized economy, multinational corporations in industries such as pharmaceuticals, lumber, mining, and tourism are now making their way deeper into the Amazon. These organizations all influence the wildlife of the forests, but also affect the cultures of the human communities that reside there. These interactions often result in negative consequences for the indigenous communities, sometimes forcing their assimilation into larger cultures. My introductory cultural anthropology course ignited my passion for advocating on the behalf of communities that are at risk of losing their homes, heritage, and natural environment. Anthropology provided me with a broad set of tools for thinking about the world and the people that live in it.
I believe every student who takes even one anthropology course will gain a deeper understanding of the dynamics of culture and globalization. Students may enter an anthropology course with a basic understanding of how the world is changing at a remarkable pace. They may also already understand how computer mediated technology links people instantaneously across the globe. Anthropology can broaden these existing understandings, helping students to study economic activities, the movement of individuals, and the transmission of information and the ways that these issues present advantages and challenges to national boundaries, economic systems, and local communities.
Anthropology gives students the tools to navigate the complex, multicultural, and changing realities of the world around them. Students can use ethnography to engage and observe the human relationships in which they are involved. Above all, students taking a cultural anthropology course can learn to appreciate cultural diversity and cross-cultural engagements.
As a student of anthropology now teaching my own cultural anthropology course, I have students who take my class from various academic backgrounds such as communications, social work, international studies, and education. Upon completing the course, my students often state how pleased they are that they have taken the course and can now view the world through a different lens and analyze it with a new level of inquiry and cultural awareness, thus explaining why ‘cultural anthropology is the most important class that any undergraduate will take.’