Tag: liberal arts

So You Want to be a Liberal Arts College Professor: Is there a Future for the Liberal Arts?

Last year I wrote a post titled “So You Want to be a Liberal Arts Professor.” At the time, I promised a series of pieces on the subject, but then my job as a liberal arts college professor got in the way…. Oh well. Among other things, I got mired in a faculty committee examining the future of the liberal arts, developing our college learning goals, and revamping the college’s distribution and graduation requirements.

Throughout the process, we spent a lot of time looking at the literature and debates on question of the relevance of the liberal arts in the 21st century – and especially on the instrumentalization of knowledge and the concerns about the practical turn in higher education.

And, while I’m concerned about many of the trends in higher ed – the corporatization of the academy and the emergence of a new managerial class — one thing that has struck me about much of this debate about the relevance of the liberal arts is how divorced the discussion tends to be from what many of us actually do in the classroom. Continue reading


Save IR and Politics at University of the West of England

Earlier today, I received an email alerting me to the fact that the University of the West of England’s Academic Board supported a recommendation from the Vice Chancellor’s Executive Group to close all international relations and politics programs.

Apparently, the plan is to refocus the university (one of the ten largest in England) on skills-based learning and vocational courses, which essentially means that arts and social sciences have no place in future plans. As long-time Duck readers know, I think this is a very bad idea — and some much-discussed research strongly supports the value of liberal arts education. Indeed, this research suggests that liberal arts students even out-perform vocationally trained students in the job market. In IR at UWE, 95% of “Students [are] in work / study six months after finishing” their course.

Unsurprisingly, students are very happy with the education they receive at UWE:

In the last five National Student Surveys History at UWE has consistently scored over 90 per cent in the overall satisfaction ratings and Politics at UWE has scored close to 90 per cent. In the 2011 Guardian University League Tables Politics at UWE scored 91 per cent for overall course satisfaction.

Indeed, the students are campaigning  to save their programs. They have set up an online petition. They also have a Facebook page. An especially resourceful Politics/IR student at UWE made the following video about the pending decision and the value of the programs: Continue reading


Walt sings the praises of a liberal education

Steve Walt opines that “would-be foreign policy wonks” should basically get a classical liberal-arts education, and he uses a traditional justification for this: “In world that is both diverse and changing rapidly, a broad portfolio of knowledge is almost certainly the best preparation for a long career in the field.” I’d amend that somewhat, and say that a broad liberal-arts education — which isn’t about gaining a portfolio of knowledge or skills as much as it is about developing a certain critical intellectual disposition — is almost certainly the best preparation for the rest of your adult life, not just for a career in the IR field however understood. Hyper-specialization at the undergraduate level is something that annoys me to no end, and on that score as on many of the specifics in Walt’s list I find myself in complete agreement.

Two minor quibbles and one more major issue.

Minor quibble #1: I think Walt gets the justification for studying some statistics as an undergraduate student precisely correct: “statistics is part of the language of policy discourse, and if you don’t understand the basics, you won’t be a discerning consumer of quantitative information.” It’s a language, you need to be able to speak it in at least a rudimentary way to make headway in most policy circles, and (it pains me to say) in most IR academic circles too. [Not because statistics is bad, but because I think we can do better as a basic methodological vocabulary than elementary statistics. But that’s another post, or a different book that I already wrote.] But when Walt advises the study of economics, he shifts his epistemic warrant slightly, calling for “basic grasp of the key principles of international trade and finance and some idea how the world economy actually works.” The former justification (statistics is a language) makes no commitment to statistics being a correct or even defensible way to view the world, just as his recommendation to learn a foreign language makes no commitment to a given language being somehow truer. But the latter justification presumes that the language of contemporary economics is some kind of a reliable guide to how things work, a debatable proposition indeed — especially given very good recent work on the performativity of economic language. he should have stuck with “learn some of that language too.”

Minor quibble #2: Walt suggests that “geography matters” so students ought to learn things like the physical characteristics of different regions. But this is a non sequitur, since it is entirely possible for one to maintain that geography matters without becoming a geographical determinist. Studying the physical characteristics of a region and expecting them to give one insight into social and political dynamics is geographical determinism, whether or not one produces a minor caveat by converting those physical characteristics into an independent variable with only a partial or probabilistic impact on outcomes…if physical characteristics explain social forms, then we’re a minor and theoretically inconsequential step away from “geography is destiny” and Halford Mackinder’s world-island and heartland. On which, well, one might read any piece of critical geography/geopolitics written in the past several decades, starting here and here. In fact, works like those two provide a gateway to a more defensible and less reductionist/determinist kind of “geography matters,” in which it’s the discourse of geographic space and not that space “in itself” (whatever the heck that might mean) which has consequences.

And this in turn links to my biggest hesitation about Walt’s list, which is his persistent equivocation between the notion that one should study certain things as an undergraduate in order to grasp the diversity of ways that people make sense of the world, and the notion that one should study certain things as an undergraduate in order to grasp the way that things really are (despite what others might think, because they’re wrong). This is perhaps most apparent in Walt’s first recommendation, which is that one should study history:

Not only does history provide the laboratory in which our basic theories must be tested, it shapes the narratives different peoples tell themselves about how they came to their present circumstances and how they regard their relationship to others. How could one hope to understand the Middle East without knowing about the Ottoman Empire, the impact of colonialism, the role of Islam, the influence of European anti-Semitism and Zionism, or the part played by the Cold War?  Similarly, how could one grasp the current complexities in Asia without understanding the prior relations between these nations and the different ways that Chinese, Vietnamese, Koreans, Japanese, Pashtuns, Hindus, Muslims, and others understand and explain past events?

Walt’s “not only” joins two extremely, even radically, different versions of what it would mean to  study history. History as “laboratory” — Walt means historical facts as data for our theories to test themselves against, but this conception also covers historical facts as parts of developmental sequences that play themselves out behind the backs, or otherwise out of the grasp of, actors  — suggests that we understand a present situation in world politics better by studying what came before it. History as “the narratives different peoples tell themselves about how they came to their present circumstances” — true, Walt says that those narratives are shaped by history rather than being history itself, but then as the paragraph unfolds he grants the study of historical self-understanding its own autonomous role in grasping “current complexities” — suggests, by contrast, that we understand a present situation in world politics better by seeing what use is made of the past in the present and how that puts horizons on the future. Events with persistent causal power versus the causal power of “eventing,” so to speak.

My hesitation is two-fold. First, Walt, like many IR scholars, doesn’t seem to be aware of the tension between these two points of view, so he (like others) can pass pretty seamlessly from “here’s how different actors construe the situation” to “here’s how it is.” But there is radical tension, perhaps to the point of incommensurability, between those approaches to history. Because Walt glosses over that tension, I hesitate. But I also hesitate because I suspect that in the end Walt is really siding with the first approach rather than the second, and is hence unable to reflexively grasp the extent to which his own account of “how it is” is itself a perspectival construal rather than a way of dispelling inaccurate perspectives. The point of a liberal-arts education, as far as I am concerned, is to kick the apparent supports out from under each and every supposed “view from nowhere” by showing how they emerge from particular combinations of commitments and stances, and this in turn propels the liberally-educated person into a better grasp of the contingency of things — which in turn allows creative action that shapes a plausible future. It is precisely not about mastering a multifaceted-but-ultimately-homogenous narrative of The Way That The World Is so that one can use that as a basis for Sound Policy Recommendations.

Developing a respect for ambiguity and contingency is not the same thing as eliminating ambiguity and contingency through a more intricate totalizing account, even if that totalizing account is couched in terms of “a broad portfolio of knowledge” for a “world that is both diverse and changing rapidly.” The former embraces genuine uncertainty in the Knightian sense; the latter reduces it to just plain old “risk.” And I would say that the latter is precisely not what a liberal-arts education is all about — it’s a technocratic device for imagining oneself into a far less ambiguous world. But a liberal-arts education equips one to live in that world instead of perpetually trying to engineer it away. Walt’s last recommendation involves confronting ethical questions and conundrums, which I certainly agree is something that one ought to do as an undergraduate student…but not to find a superior foundation as much as to start recognizing the limits of such foundations, the Weberian “uncomfortable facts” that each and every principled position has to confront. Remember that it was Plato who thought that one could craft new, superior foundations; Socrates just asked questions that confounded his interlocutors and forced them to question their assumptions. The liberal-arts educator ought to think Socrates rather than Plato, and the undergraduate student — especially, perhaps, the undergraduate student interested in world politics broadly understood — ought to be a lot more concerned with the diversity of ways of worlding than with looking for the One True (Account Of The) World.


So long for now, New England

I didn’t meet many faculty on my recent tour of New England liberal arts colleges (and a few Ivies), but one scholar I dined with provided this great line about foreign language study:

“Optimists study English; pessimists study Arabic; realists study Mandarin.”

After nearly 1400 miles of driving and visits to more than a dozen schools, my daughter and I enjoyed a personal tour of the Naval War College. Then, we walked around Newport and savored the end of the journey and beautiful vistas.

Incidentally, this was a real highlight of the trip. Someone needs to export it to Louisville.

If anyone here wants to weigh in on the college choice discussion, please feel free to do so in comments. We’ll be mulling over the decision for some time yet.


Rethinking liberal arts

What does a citizen need to know? What skills and knowledge should we assume in our interactions with others? What makes a person a well-rounded person? The issues go back for centuries, and every so often some suggests modifications to the list of “liberal arts.” I teach at a university with a “liberal arts” requirement, and I know from experience the battles to have a class listed as required (or optional) include issues of academic politics and teaching philosophy. The outcomes of those battles can make or break particular classes, or entire programs.

A group of scholars has published a new reconsideration (PDF) of “liberal arts” (note: not the liberal arts). What began as a series of conversations on a blog has been refined to a short book. The contributors go out out of their way to declare their list is not canonical, but here’s their table of contents:So, what do you think? What needs to be added to the list of liberal arts? What needs to be dropped? Is there a place for what we teach?


One less department

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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