The Public Education Committee of the Society for American Archaeology: An Historical and Comparative Perspective


By Ruth O. Selig*


Before 1960, those professionals holding a Ph.D. in any of the behavioral sciences (psychology, sociology, and anthropology, including archaeology) primarily found careers in academic life, but in the last forty years psychology has become increasingly an applied field, with 60% of those holding advanced degrees now entering clinical positions. Looking at the behavioral sciences over these decades, it is clear that psychology’s development as an academic and applied discipline, particularly since World War II, has been very different from sociology, anthropology, or archaeology, and is reflected in the membership of the American Psychological Association (APA)’s 140,000 members, compared to the American Anthropological Association (AAA)’s 12,500 members,  the American Sociological Association (ASA)’s 13,000 members, or the Society for American Archaeology (SAA’s), with its approximately 10,000 members. 


There is an interesting parallel towards “applied work” in archeology, which like psychology, has undergone a profound transformation. As Melinda Zeder explains: “At the heart of this transformation is a major re-structuring in archaeological employment caused by the growth of public, and especially, private sector archaeology, which is challenging the long-standing status quo of archaeological practice in academia and museums, as well as reshaping almost every aspect of American archaeology”(1997: 45).  Most of this change has occurred in the last 25 years.


Perhaps it is not surprising, therefore, that public archaeology and education have received new support and energy from the Society of American Archaeology (SAA), which firmly embraced its Public Education Committee (PEC) (Smith: 1995). As Phyliss Messenger explains, the SAA’s Public Education Committee grew out of the larger change within archaeology which was transformed in the 1960's and 1970's “from a discipline practiced primarily in university contexts to one carried out primarily in the context of cultural resource management, with increasing emphasis on responsibilities to the public and to the archaeological resources themselves” (1998:4).  


The Public Education Committee grew out of the 1989 SAA “Save the Past for the Future” Conference at Taos, New Mexico, and was created “to promote awareness about and concern for the study of past cultures, and to engage people in the preservation and protection of heritage resources” (Messenger 1998:4).  Many of the members of this committee had been involved with preservation efforts of the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the Bureau of Reclamation, and other federal agencies within the Department of the Interior.  The PEC focus was never primarily on teaching, pre-college curriculum or teacher training.


The committee’s numerous and active subcommittees have worked on various projects to increase public awareness of archaeology through public lectures, a network of state coordinators, workshops for teachers of Native American students, curriculum assessment, professional involvement of academic archaeologists in university curriculum reform to include more public archaeology training, and dissemination of public archaeology through publications and newsletters, including professional journals. Throughout its fifteen year history, only one in over a dozen committees of the Public Education Committee has been devoted to pre-college archaeology.


Thus, despite the increased public awareness of archaeology (over 40 states now have official state sponsored Public Awareness of Archaeology Weeks), and despite some inroads of anthropology and archaeology materials and units into pre-college classrooms, the future of anthropology and archaeology in schools appears to be much less clear than that of the other behavioral sciences such as psychology and sociology.*



[*This is an excerpt from a longer chapter: Ruth O. Selig. “Professional Associations and Educational Advocacy: The Behavioral Sciences in U.S. Schools,” pp. 146-170.  In Sea Changes in Social Science Education: Woods Hole 2000, edited by Charles S. White.   Social Science Education Consortium, 2001.]


 Contributed by Ruth. O. Selig 06/21/06.


Posted by J.R. Jeppson 06/22/06