My worthless diploma and priceless humanities education

The humanities study human culture. But if you want to be a responsible human adult in our culture, you don’t study the humanities. At least according to many headlines during graduation season.

I graduated with a degree in the humanities (anthropology) in 2001. It almost felt like an accident. One day I was undecided and the next day--oops!--I had a bachelor of arts and I was skipping my graduation ceremony and driving a rusty step-van home to my parent’s house.

I never got a job with my degree. In that regard, my diploma, buried somewhere beneath the detritus of my kids’ toddlerhood toys in the basement, is a worthless piece of paper. But you can get more from college than a degree. You can get an education.

How I used my education in the humanities

After graduation, I quickly put my anthropology degree to work as a SCUBA instructor in Key West, Florida. My boss also had a degree in anthropology, which isn’t needed to keep hungover tourists from killing themselves underwater, but having an understanding of touristicus moronus sure didn’t hurt.

Anthropology inspired me to follow my curiosity around the world. In between dive seasons, I traveled. I caught 100 rides hitchhiking in New Zealand. Lived with monks in Nepal, spent the night in Castle Dracula in Romania, played PlayStation in Kosovo.

If you would have asked me what a 401K was, I would’ve thought it was a hike and grabbed my backpack.

Anthropology taught me that our default setting is to be ethnocentric. That is to say we think our way of life, way of dancing, way of speaking, way of thinking, way of worshipping are the best. All other cultures are weird. Mix in a healthy dose of “American Exceptionalism” and growing up in one of the whitest most Christian counties in all of rural America. But it only took a semester of anthropology 101 before I realized how fascinating and enlightening the perspectives of others cultures were.

I wanted to go everywhere to learn from and experience different cultures. I started to publish some of my travel experiences. Before I knew it, I was making tens of dollars a month as a writer.

Knowing I could go anywhere in the world to find something to write about, I followed my favorite T-shirt to Honduras where it was made. I went jungle hiking, taught an island-village to play baseball, and went SCUBA diving. After all that, I showed up at the factory gate where my shirt was made. I met the guy who made it. His name was Amilcar.

Then it got real. No longer was this a silly adventure to find where my shirt was made. This was a guy, who was my same age, working a job making my shirts. I think it’s the first time in my life that I had faced my own privilege. It was awkward.

Suddenly I remembered those lessons and lectures on globalization, sweatshops, and inequality from my anthropology and sociology courses. Suddenly they seemed important. What was Amilcar’s life like? What did he get paid? How was he treated? Every day we are tangibly connected to people around the world who make our clothes, computers, and produce our imported foods. What are their lives like?

For the next 10 years, I made it my business to find out.

What anthropology taught me

Anthropology taught me empathy, introducing me to the principle of cultural relativism-- we shouldn’t judge other cultures in terms of our own, but try to see from their point of view. So I showed up in slums and shantytowns, and I listened. I went bowling with twenty-something garment workers in Cambodia, celebrated birthday parties in Bangladesh, split open cacao pods in Ivory Coast, and picked coffee beans alongside farmers in Colombia.

I participated. Participant observation happens to be a method of research I learned about in anthropology, where researchers don’t sit in the corner scribbling notes, but join in.

I knew there was no way to actually experience what it was like to be the people I met, but I could get a small taste of their culture and in the process connect with a human over my awkward dance moves or dangerous inefficiencies with a machete. Want to win people over? Be the comic relief.

At 26, I was a vagabonding SCUBA instructor with an irresponsible travel writing habit. I was the posterchild to what happens to promising high school graduates when they major in the humanities.

I don’t have a masters in anthropology, but I have a career because of my education in the humanities.

I got a book deal. That book became a New York Times Bestseller. I got another book deal. I’ve shared my stories at more than 100 college campuses across the United States. I have a wife and two kids, a home in the fields of Indiana where the stars shine nearly as bright as they do on the open sea.

If we look at college degrees as short term investments, the ROI of a degree in humanities is tough to compare with an engineering or business degree. But I believe that education serves a greater purpose than employment. An education can inspire our curiosity, show us new ways of seeing the world.

My degree in anthropology forever changed the way I live my life as a local and global citizen, as a consumer and producer, as a giver, as a husband, and as a father.

A true education doesn’t just lead to a livelihood, but inspires our life.

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