Because I majored in cultural anthropology, people always asked, “What are you going to do with that?” If you studied anything other than medicine, business, law, science, or engineering, many people probably asked you that too. This is actually a nicer way to ask, “What good is that?” But it can also be an indirect way of suggesting that “that’s not good for anything.”
This reflects a dominant trend in our country. Conservative ideologues increasingly pressure institutions like the university to determine the value of knowledge in terms of economic costs and benefits, not in terms of public and social or cultural good.
If you study an esoteric moment in the history of art, or become an expert on forgotten literature in some forgotten corner of the world, or are concerned with the ways that racism and inequality impact peoples on the marginalized edges of society, this view usually suggests that your knowledge is not good for anything. If it cannot be bought or sold, it has no value.
This way of thinking erodes society. In better days, we deliberated the value of knowledge by sustaining public support for universities and public debate over such issues. Yet this push to marketize or commodify knowledge is a form of privatizing knowledge. This push says that the market will decide what knowledge has value. Which is to say, only those with money will decide what knowledge has value.
This erodes society and erodes the social value that knowledge has for creating enlightened, informed, citizens, a “good” that the market does not necessarily value.
This market logic also erodes the critical value of knowledge – that is, our knowledge as a means to critique and reflect on society, one of our capacities as human beings. Knowledge is not simply a “thing” that can be assigned a monetary value. It is not simply about “discovery” of facts. Knowledge is a social practice – of making and creating. It emerges through social relationships, between people and between people and the world.
Relations between people raise moral and ethical questions such that knowledge-making is never “pure and detached” science. Knowledge-making is always socially and morally positioned. When we produce knowledge, we explore, reveal and speak about ongoing social life. In doing so, the pursuit of knowledge often reveals that which power would like to obscure.
Knowledge-making is not just counting and measuring some “reality” out there. It is an interpretative act that mobilizes the empirical and imaginary capacity of human-beings. It engages and creates reality as a creative practice. It seeks to think the possibility of a world otherwise.
So “what good,” they will still ask you, “is all of that?”
When academics raise such points, it is not simply an expression of bias or opinion, but a moral and political exercise in public self-reflection, an exercise of making knowledge that is rooted in a commitment to truth.
No, you can’t sell it, patent it, turn it into a product or make money off of it. Certainly, power deems it troublesome. But precisely for this reason, it is socially invaluable. It is absolutely crucial. That is what it is good for.
The most valuable scholars are not those reaping millions from their “discoveries” but those using their skills to make critical and self-reflective “knowledge” with people, for people, to rethink our histories and our futures, and to work against violence and exclusion; against the obscuring work of power.
The privilege of academic employment, elite college education, and especially tenure, demands that we do so.
Edited from remarks made at the Senior Farewell Dinner of the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship & Merle Kling Undergraduate Honors Fellowship at Washington University on April 29. Gustafson is an associate professor of Sociocultural Anthropology at Washington University.