Public Anthropology and the Quest for Wisdom


Sohanci Adamu Jenitongo of Tillaberi, Niger (Photo by Paul Stoller)

These days there is a shortage of wisdom in the public sphere.  Political pundits of every persuasion articulate shallow observations that usually consist of little more than talking points.  In the public sphere there is little, if any, conversation–a real exchange of ideas.  Our pundits have precious little time on-air and they use it to rapidly pile up their points, which means there is no time for listening, let alone learning something new or something out of the ordinary.

There is little time for any kind of reflection.  Our legislators don’t take time to read he legislation on which they are charged to vote.  How many people in Congress read the massive tax cut legislation that recently became law?  Why take the time to pour over the particulars?

In our techno-charged culture of speed, who has time to do anything?

Our public officials have no time to read, let alone reflect on the economic and moral ramifications of  cutting food stamps, Medicaid, and mental health programs.  They have not a moment to think about the social consequences of obliterating the Public Broadcast System and National Pubic Radio.  In the culture of speed, our leaders prefer short-term profit over long-term gain.  They want to open up to fossil fuel drilling beautiful US natural treasures like Utah’s Bears Ears National Monument.  Such drilling will likely desiccate a sacred landscape and accelerate the processes of climate change, which the scientifically ignorant conveniently deny.

We are witnesses to a frightening social madness.

In a culture of speed, there is little room for science or scientific exchange.  In a media saturated world, the flood of on-line information has made us less curious and less willing to listen.  Having a face-to-face conversation, the bedrock of social relations, has become increasingly stressful. In contemporary society, as the philosopher Mark Taylor has stated, “speed kills.”

Enter public anthropology. Anthropology is a slow science in a culture of speed.  Our insights develop gradually over long periods of research in exotic and not-so exotic settings. Our principal research tool is face-to-face conversation with the people we seek to understand.  More often than not, our interlocutors have much to teach us about living the world.  My teacher, Sohanci Adamu Jenitongo was one such man–the embodiment of wisdom.  It took him a lifetime of learning to understand his world. He used that insight to make things better for his people.  He patiently talked to people and gradually understood how he might use his gifts to guide them to a better life.  He knew how to heal the sick, how to mine the past to understand the present and see into the future. He understood how wisdom is conveyed slowly from generation to generation.  The charge of the healer–or sohanci–is to safeguard social justice. Indeed, he encouraged me to bring the wise knowledge of the Songhay elders to my own society–to make it a better place to live.

How can public anthropology make America a better place to live?

It can communicate to the public the wisdom of practices that enhance the quality of social relations.

It can expose public stupidity and encourage public excellence. It’s stupid to pass a piece of legislation without reading the bill.  It’s stupid to deny climate change when glaciers and the Antarctic ice shelf are melting at alarming rates.  It’s stupid to say we need more guns to stem the scourge of gun violence in America.

In a globally-integrated world, it’s smart for public anthropologists to steadfastly encourage reason, critical thinking, and cross-cultural awareness.  It’s smart to combat “alternative facts” with scientific reason.  It’s smart to listen to incontrovertible scientific evidence that our outmoded-conquer-the-earth exploitative practices will condemn our children and grandchildren to climatic hell.  It’s smart to listen to the Parkland school shooting survivors.  They may be young but they are inspirational, for they remind us how to speak truth to power. They are showing us the way to a better future.

Can engaged learning change stupid to smart? Adamu Jenitongo thought so.  The fires of stupid, he’d like to say, burn brightly. In time, though, they dim and die out. If you are patient and persistent, he would say, people slow down, open their eyes and follow a smart path to a future in which people can live well in the world.

In short, if we are patient and persistent, our path will open,


















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