iMahal Interview Series:
David Gimbel
July 22, 2001

iMahal:  You have talked about Archaeos, the non-profit company you founded in New York. Please tell us more about the organization and its mission.
Gimbel:  Its mission is really two-fold. One aspect of it is to do archeological research and to enable other people to do archeological research. In some ways this "enabling" is also a way to give back to the community of people who have helped me. As you have probably gathered from our discussion, there are a lot of people who have had a strong influence in my life, who have actually been very generous to me and offered me all sorts of opportunities that I would not have had otherwise. So Archaeos was a way of trying to help other people to set up their own projects and take their own path in this.

So half of it is research. The other half is educational. I think that one of the problems in the humanities is that it's common to see academics moan and groan that nobody cares about their research. This is related to the diminishing quantity of research budgets in many non-scientific or non-commercially related disciplines. But, I think you have to ask yourself the question, "If nobody cares about your research, is it that your research is unimportant? Or is it that you haven't taken your research out to the public?" I think one of the dangerous syndromes that one finds in some academic communities is a general contempt for the public. The public is not stupid. It's intelligent. The fact is, you may not think that the public shares the same intellectual views with you or that they are interested in the same things, but as Noam Chomsky once pointed out they can all sit down and watch a game like football and they can follow a complex set of rules and make their own judgments on it, without relying on the referee or anybody else's opinion. You have a very intelligent public that I think is interested in a lot of things. Unfortunately, many of these things are never presented to them in an engaging way.

If you are a professor of linguistics, for example, and you're involved in thinking out loud about historical linguistics, you should recognize that this is a subject that a lot of people would be interested in.
..if you are passionate about what you do, you should take it to a wider audience..
It involves issues such as how humans dispersed across the earth and how they formed unique cultures that are directly tied to linguistic identities. Is that something we've ever seen on television? Is it something we'd ever see in Time magazine? I think that if you are passionate about what you do, you should take it to a wider audience. You shouldn't expect that your passion is going to be supported just because what you do is viewed as innovative or important by a small group of people who are included in your narrow discipline.

When I tell people I'm an archeologist, 90% of them are interested. The questions they ask might be intelligent or might be bizarre, such as "were the pyramids created by extra-terrestrials?" but nonetheless it seems that almost everybody I know eventually watches the Discovery Channel or the History Channel. One of the problems that I see is that we don't take enough information to the public. The other problem that we face is that the media exercises a powerful controlling influence in terms of the types of information that it wants to present. This goes back to my earlier comments about how empowered social structures are very careful about the types of messages that they choose to visually or linguistically transmit.

Overall, however, I think it's actually good to have obstacles. When we see an obstacle, rather than saying, "Oh, this is impossible, we can't do this," we should instead find ways to bridge it, find ways to get over that hurdle. An important thing that I've seen in my lifetime is that the humanities are disintegrating. I don't think many universities will continue to fund the type of research that I am interested in. They're not going to fund the chairs, they're not going to fund the excavations.
..You have to find different ways to enable your research to continue..
I read at some point, for example, that Yale had decided to dismantle its linguistics department. It's one of the greatest universities in the world. It's bizarre not to teach linguistics. But, the fact is that universities are increasingly becoming vocational schools. They're increasingly focusing a large percentage of their efforts on teaching the skills required for employment by very specific, usually commercial, trades. This is a radical departure from an approximately 800 year old tradition of humanistic learning that developed in Europe and continued in the Americas. If you feel passionate about archeology, linguistics, history, about whatever it is that you study, then I think you have to make a paradigm shift. You have to find different ways to enable your research to continue.

All photographs copyright and courtesy of David Gimbel or Archaeos



   Search Help

Tell a friend about this webpage!