Universities and Archaeology

Posted on November 5, 2011


“For most of them, in the end, what the university offers is not skills or knowledge but credentials: a diploma that signals employability and basic work discipline. Those who manage to learn a lot often—though happily not always—come from highly educated families and attend highly selective colleges and universities. They are already members of an economic and cultural elite. Our great, democratic university system has become a pillar of social stability—a broken community many of whose members drift through, learning little, only to return to the economic and social box that they were born into.”

That quote is from the article Our Universities: Why Are They Failing? I think it captures perfectly what the university system is, a stamp of approval. Think about it for a second. To get into a university you either have to have good grades or good test scores. Good grades and good test scores are highly correlated with one’s background. If your parents have a degree your scores are better on tests. The higher your family income the higher your grades and test scores. All factors that also correlate with skin color as well, the lighter your complexion the more money you have and the better your scores.

Because universities can choose who they let in, by what ever criteria they see fit, they have wonderful selection bias. That is, universities only choice those people with good grades which in turn means they select the “economic and cultural elite”. Yes, they choose the people that will do well in life regardless if they get a degree or not. This means universities are not really teaching people in the way they think they are. Universities think they are teaching everyone the basic skills they need to be accomplished in x, y, or z field. In reality, selection bias has insured that their students will be successful, no matter what, in life.

If universities really wanted to see how well they teach, they would take a random sample of population and try to teach them what it takes to be successful in x, y, or z field. I imagine it would shock most the upper tiers of universities to realize they make little difference in people’s lives.

What does this have to do with archaeology? Well, archaeology is overwhelming dominated by white middle to upper class individuals. People have been complaining about this and trying to change this for years, (see SAA scholarships for minorities). There has only been minor, if that, success towards a goal of a more inclusive discipline. The real problem is not interest in archaeology but that to be considered an archaeologists you must have a degree. To get a degree you must go to university and who does well at universities? You guessed it, white middle to upper class individuals. If archaeology wants to get serious about breaking out of its mold it either needs to change the university system or leave behind the need to obtain a degree.