This Duke Dropout Could Reinvigorate the Study of Anthropology

By Art Carden

The Onion is hilarious, and it’s one of the true literary gems of the internet age (though, in my humble and evangelical opinion, the Babylon Bee has eclipsed it in slugging percentage in the last couple of years). One of its more interesting recent entries carried the headline “Duke Anthropology Professor Devastated to Learn Promising Student Dropping Out.”

The anthropologist in the article, “Edwin Greeley,” is perfect in his obliviousness to the world that once-in-a-generation basketball superstar — and, according to the article, anthropology prodigy — Zion Williamson faces, and he doesn’t understand “why anyone so talented would [drop out of Duke].”

The answer, of course, is obvious: many, many millions of dollars await Williamson in the NBA.

At Forbes, Adam Zagoria asked if Zion Williamson could earn $1 billion in his basketball career. Even though the fictional Greeley is convinced that “a $30,000-per-year adjunct professorship was easily within reach for someone with [Williamson’s] promise,” the choice just doesn’t seem that hard.

It’s beautiful satire.

Hold on a minute, though. What if Williamson can have both? It turns out he can: Williamson can play basketball and advance the anthropological project through the power of specialization.

Let’s suppose Williamson truly is an anthropology virtuoso, unmatched by anyone in his class, and a once-in-a-generation talent in anthropology just as he’s a once-in-a-generation talent on the basketball court. It doesn’t follow that he is wasting his talents by dropping out of Duke and playing basketball instead of staying at Duke, possibly earning a Ph.D. in anthropology, and embarking on a long research career.

Maybe he’s without peer as an anthropology student, but relative to the rest of the world he has even more singular talents in basketball — talents that will probably earn him in endorsements alone enough to fund an entire world-class anthropology department. Had he eschewed basketball and chosen anthropology, he might have put himself in a position to write one or two seminal articles every year and a breakthrough book every few years after a decade or so of intense study.

By specializing in basketball, where he has a clear comparative advantage relative to virtually everyone else in the world, and using the proceeds to fund research and teaching, Zion Williamson can give the world more world-class basketball and more world-class anthropological inquiry.

Would it be a tragedy if Williamson were an anthropology virtuoso who, in dropping out of Duke and taking his talents to the NBA, eschewed a career of path-breaking, world-rocking anthropological scholarship? No. By following his heart — and his wallet — Zion Williamson puts himself in a position to create more on-court excitement and more off-court insight than he ever could have had he chosen to forsake basketball for the life of the mind.

So what should he do? I don’t know. I’m not him, I don’t know his preferences, and I don’t know which trade-offs he is willing to make. Maybe he is secretly pining for a career as an anthropologist and trying to gin up the courage to walk away from basketball so he can embrace his true love.

Lots of academic economists could probably make more money working on Wall Street, and yet we eschew big paychecks for the job satisfaction that comes with academia. Even if he has a passion for anthropology, what we know about specialization and division of labor shows us that Williamson needn’t feel like he is letting anyone down or forsaking anthropology by choosing basketball.

If my experience with colleges and universities is any indication, I suspect there are plenty of people in Duke’s advancement office who would be more than happy to remind Williamson of that fact and help him match his newfound riches with his intellectual passions.

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Art Carden

Art Carden is a Senior Fellow at the American Institute for Economic Research. He is also an Associate Professor of Economics at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama.