The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

One less department

March 10, 2009

In other depressing academic-job-market-related news, Wisconsin Lutheran College has apparently decided to eliminate its entire Political Science department. Indeed, they appear to be removing Political Science entirely from their list of offerings:

[A spokeswoman] noted that current majors will be able to take political science at other colleges in the area, at Wisconsin Lutheran’s expense. And she said that the college determined it wasn’t necessary to its liberal arts mission to offer political science. “We have interdisciplinary majors and other majors that can get you where you are going with your career and aspirations, whether it’s law school or whatever after your undergraduate degree,” she said.

Even though Wisconsin Lutheran College was probably not at the top of many people’s list of dream academic jobs (it may have been for some, but a college that — according to its mission statement — “integrates God’s truths into every discipline, helping students relate their faith to life in today’s world” is probably appealing to a very specialized segment of the professoriate), and even though it doesn’t grant tenure, the elimination of the two full-time jobs formerly in the Political Science department places some small increased pressure on other positions around the country.

But what’s really striking here is less the minor impact on the job market caused by the disappearance of these two positions, and more the general point made by the college’s determination that a Political Science department is not necessary to its “liberal arts mission.” Speaking as a card-carrying political scientist, I have to agree: a department of Political Science, which would have to be plugged into the contemporary discipline of Political Science, is not a particularly essential part of a liberal arts education. I maintain this despite basically agreeing with Michael Brintnall, the Executive Director of the American Political Science Association, who commented of the study of politics:

“It would be thought to be a central component of a liberal arts education. . . . The subject matter is too central to civic life and understanding where we are going in the world to not offer the content.”

The problem is that the contemporary discipline of Political Science doesn’t really do any of these things; it doesn’t promote civic awareness, doesn’t really offer undergraduates much in the way of helping them understand the world, and is a lot less concerned with any content at all than it is with increasingly narrow measurement criteria and abstruse quantitative techniques.

Put yourself in the position of the administrator of a small religiously-affiliated college for a moment. You’re facing a $3 million budget shortfall, and you have to cut an academic department. Now, if you try to get rid of one of the natural sciences, the public backlash is likely to be tremendous: whatever the economic situation, the press would not be able to get past the juicy headline “Christian College Opposed to Science.” Similarly, eliminating one of the humanities departments would likely provoke charges of cultural puritanism. So the safest bet is to eliminate one of the social sciences, since none of them have an overarching philosophy that might look like the real target of any such move.

Now, consider that in order to staff a department, one is in important ways beholden to the relevant academic discipline. This happens in at least two ways. First, the majority of easily reachable job candidates for a department are those that have been professionally trained — meaning: have earned a PhD in — the relevant academic discipline. (Full disclosure: one of the two full-time positions in the Political Science department at Wisconsin Lutheran College which was apparently occupied by someone without a PhD; the other held a PhD in Political Science.) That’s because of the tight coupling between disciplines and departments: people trained in and socialized into a discipline recognize other members of their tribe more easily, so political scientists hire other political scientists, while sociologists hire sociologists, etc. Job markets are also organized by discipline, by and large; when a Political Science department lists a job, it uses APSA’s e-jobs service, which is read by — no surprise here — political scientists.

But staffing a department is only half of the issue. Once people are hired, they also have to figure out what to assign to their students; for that purpose, they need books and articles. Naturally, people want to assign the current, contemporary research in their field if they can, but not only does that not say much about civic engagement or the future of the political landscape, but it doesn’t even say what it does say in a way that is particularly accessible to undergraduate students. “The Role of Parties’ Past Behavior in Coalition Formation,” to pick just one of the articles from the most recent issue of the American Political Science Review, doesn’t exactly sound like a page-turner. And yes, I know full well that other disciplines also have a dichotomy between their contemporary research and the kinds of things that one assigns to undergraduates, but the gulf is particularly pronounced in contemporary Political Science. (At least Anthropology and Sociology have classics that can be profitably read by undergraduates; once one gets outside of the social sciences, the humanities have works of art and literature, and the natural sciences have textbooks and laboratories.) I remember serving as a TA for an American politics class while in grad school; the professor told a lot of stories about how actual politics worked, but the reading material talked about such scintillating topics as fire-alarms versus trip-wires in governmental oversight regimes. So the students, not surprisingly, ignored the reading and listened to the stories.

I think the students were on the right track. If one wants to actually do much serious thinking about civic life and one’s individual responsibility within it, one would be well-advised to stay as far away from the last several decades of Political Science scholarship as possible. Undergraduate education in politics shouldn’t be about learning how to solve extensive-form games; it should be about learning how government works. But contemporary Political Science isn’t much help to that task. This implies that if we want students to come to articulate their own sense of civic engagement, we ought not send them to the Political Science department, but could achieve the same effect by sending them elsewhere. And to make matters worse, people trained in Political Science probably aren’t likely to know how to facilitate this for undergraduates, which further undermines the need for a Political Science department in a liberal arts college.

Now, I’m not saying that every liberal arts college ought to go around eliminating its Political Science department. (In fact, Political Science departments at most liberal arts colleges I know are actually quite far removed from the mainstream of the discipline; I don’t think this is an accident.) But I am saying that the decision makes a certain amount of sense, since the discipline of Political Science is so far away from the goals of a liberal arts undergraduate education. And that’s too bad — bad for Political Science, not bad for the liberal arts.

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Patrick Thaddeus Jackson is Professor of International Studies in the School of International Service, and also Director of the AU Honors program. He was formerly Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of International Relations and Development, and is currently Series Editor of the University of Michigan Press' book series Configurations: Critical Studies of World Politics.