Monday, February 18, 2013


The Forgotten Disciplines

STEM initiatives are all the rage in academia these days.  They’re popular with policymakers, who see them as a form of high-end workforce development; they’re popular with parents, who see them as high-end job placement; and they’re somewhat popular with students.  At the community college level, developmental math has long been -- and continues to be -- a major challenge for graduation rates; it continues, rightly, to receive substantial attention.  From the bottom of the curriculum to the top, STEM fields are in a kind of heyday.

Meanwhile, the higher education press is rife with humanists.  One would be forgiven for mistaking the Chronicle of Higher Ed for the house organ of the MLA.  In the popular press, to the extent that higher education is discussed at all, it’s often portrayed as a battle between the “fuzzy” humanists -- variously understood to be hand-wringing liberals, stuffy antiquarians, or tattooed lesbians, depending on taste -- and the pragmatic business/engineering types who are busily preparing students for the Real World, with varying degrees of success.  The subtext is that the business/engineering types are winning; whether you want to read that as progress or decline is up to you.

As a card-carrying social scientist, I can’t help but wonder at the relative silence around the social sciences.

They’re still pretty widely taught.  Intro to Psychology is typically one of the most popular courses among American undergraduates.  Intro to American Government -- my old haunt -- is weirdly marginalized, even though the subject matter is of obvious interest.  “Sociology” as a brand is having a rough go, but the topics it addresses remain compelling.  Economics is mostly honored in the breach.  Even history -- whether you classify it under social sciences or humanities -- mostly gets ignored in the popular discussion, except for increasingly tired tirades about whether social history is progress or decline.

Yes, I have some bias here.  But it’s also true that psych and soc and poli sci don’t get anywhere near the attention that math and English do.  

I’m told that, at the K-12 level, the relative neglect of “social studies” is an outgrowth of No Child Left Behind.  I’m old enough not to believe that.  It didn’t get much attention before NCLB, either; at most, NCLB may be guilty of making a bad situation worse.  But it was already bad.

Popular versions of the social sciences sell quite well.  Malcolm Gladwell, Dan Ariely, Nate Silver, and the Freakonomics guys wouldn’t have the careers they do if it were otherwise.  The subject matter of social sciences -- money, power, sex -- certainly holds popular interest.  And from a scholarly point of view, the social sciences offer a wonderful duality.  They’re both intuitive and empirical.  They lend themselves nicely to both qualitative and quantitative analysis.  In fact, the best work tends to draw deliberately on both.  As “general education,” it’s excellent.

Yet it’s largely forgotten.  I can’t remember the last time I read about a statewide focus on improving student outcomes in Intro to American Government.  (“Civic engagement” gets some traction, but that’s not the same thing.)  We have national foundations competing with each other to put forward the Next Great Idea for math, but I haven’t heard anyone address Intro to Psych.  

It’s an odd elision.  In my more conspiratorial moods, I like to think that the relative demotion of the social sciences is a conspiracy against critical thinking applied to social issues.  But then I calm down and realize that it’s probably more a matter of simply taking for granted.

To my mind, the social sciences provide excellent fodder for quantitative reasoning (“correlation is not causation”), communication skills (can I convince you of my position on this hot-button issue?), and information literacy (is Fox news a reliable source?).  They address wonderfully rich issues, and at their best, they can suggest that things we take as “given” are, in fact, changeable.  

Wise and worldly readers, am I just getting this wrong, or are the social sciences getting mostly ignored?  And if they are, should they be?

I think the social sciences are only "forgotten" to the extent that they're unthinkingly lumped in with the humanities, since most of those in the educational reform establishment (and, increasingly, the administrators coming straight out of ed schools and for-profits with "PhDs" in higher education administration without any graduate experience in the schools of arts and sciences) don't seem to know the difference. Nor do politicians. Witness, for example, the recent efforts to end NSF funding for political science research. A few political science programs have made efforts to promote a "STEM" dimension to the discipline (emphasizing analytical skills, for example) but that's about as far as it goes.
"In my more conspiratorial moods, I like to think that the relative demotion of the social sciences is a conspiracy against critical thinking applied to social issues."

Conspiracy or not, I think this is the outcome.

But it's worth noting that those of teaching Composition (as well as my colleagues in "Intro to Speech"-type courses) often tackle social science topics. I realize this isn't exactly the same thing, but they aren't completely forgotten.
An awful lot of the emphasis on STEM is aimed at producing technical worker drones. There's a lot less money available for pure science research than there used to be. If the social sciences had a connection to corporate interests, they'd get financing like applied science does. As they don't, they're scrambling like researchers in the hard sciences.

(And the parts that do have obvious applications, such as market research, aren't starved for money. But they're also not taught by traditional social science departments.)
Part of the problem is just the idea that "humanities" are one thing and "science" is another, rather than just labels that we try to fit to various bundles of methods, theories, and reasoning that differ a lot among themselves, and often combine elements from both. As an archaeologist, I often find it very tempting to call myself a "scientist" because it brings more respect outside the academy, even though I also do so much historical research and reasoning that the term doesn't seem wholly accurate.

I think the more historical/field-based/less marketable sciences are in sort of the same boat, actually. Sometimes ecology, evolutionary biology, and non-oil-related geology don't fit the stereotype of laboratory experimentation leading to medical developments or new technology. People with BAs in biology don't necessarily have great job prospects (although granted, geologists often do). They may not be doubted as "sciences," but I'm not sure they're included in most people's idea of "STEM," and they also receive far less funding from NSF than a lot of other disciplines.

I'm really glad that a)I'm not in high school anymore b)that I don't have kids in the school system.

I was very lucky to have curriculum in all levels of the social sciences. Even in middle and high school. It brings back very vivid memories. As I found out last night, my AP European History teacher has passed away. He made us think and question and consider and that's alot to get out of 10th graders.

At the online non-trad PubU where I work now, we have a department called Behavioral and Social Sciences that students are required to complete coursework in. Warms my little liberal arts heart.

As a non-STEM person, I can see that in probably a decade we'll have a country full of STEM-y people but the other side of the house will be empty and then we'll get a push to have people study the social sciences.

Here's a thought-let people study what they are interested in or good at.
Part of the political/public focus on STEM likely comes from its ease of testing and cross-cultural portability. Consider how much of the panic about education is related to American test scores relative to those of other nations. That panic sells magazines and gets eyeballs on teevee shows. You can’t generate that panic if you can’t make direct comparisons.

That our high school graduates’ skills in English or civics on average aren’t great is far less compelling a news story than their relative weakness in anything compared to China. And we can't compare how well American kids write essays compared to those in China, so it gets ignored by the shouting heads.

(When I was in high school, the Nation About to Eat Our Lunch was Japan. When my mother was in high school, it was the Russians. When my kids reach high school, who knows? The Canadians? The Indonesians? The Belgian-Honduran Axis?)

The rhetoric isn’t “Why Johnny Can't Read.” It’s “Why Johnny Can’t Do Math Good Like Those Foreigner Kids Do.”
"Part of the political/public focus on STEM likely comes from its ease of testing and cross-cultural portability."

A really, really good point that I had not previously considered. Thanks.
I know that you don’t think NCLB has struck a major blow to the social sciences but in a middle class suburb, you’d never see how bad it’s become. In the poorer areas of my city, there are schools that teach nothing but math and language arts all day long. They are under the gun to get scores up and that’s how they’ve chosen to approach the issue. I feel sorry for those kids because there are people out there – like me – who need things to be applied to be interesting. I think you can learn a lot about math from charts and graphs and statistics. You can write better if you have some information to write about or a well formed argument to present. Also, if your parents are not terribly well educated or informed, you won’t get the informal exposure to information that falls under the social science umbrella that middle class and affluent parents provide to their kids – poor kids end up less well informed because there’s no one to level the field, something that good schools used to do.

You hear a lot from the humanists because they are professional writers. They have the time, energy, and training to create compelling commentary about their situation. They also have numbers on their side – our English department had more faculty than any other on campus except business.

I can’t remember the last time I read about a statewide focus on improving student outcomes in Intro to American Government.

That might be because math is easy to measure, and American Government isn't.
When I got to college (about 13 years ago) and started taking social science courses, I remember thinking, huh, why didn't I have the chance to take classes in any of this stuff (psychology, economics, sociology, political science) in high school? It seemed much more relevant and applicable to life than a lot of the humanities courses I took - I never understood why we think high school students need to take 3 years of american history, but never crack open an economics textbook. So many of the misunderstandings and common misperceptions about politics and other important issues of modern life seem to come from lack of a basic grasp of economics, psychology, and other social sciences. Don't get me wrong - in addition to my social science major I double majored in the arts, so I'm not saying social science is the be-all, end-all, but it does seem to have a lot of value for being basically under-taught at the k-12 level.
The current "STEM-roller" is mostly a knee-jerk reaction to the current state of the economy and the high cost of tuition. Legislators and other decision-makers are trying to figure out how to get the biggest employment bang for the tuition buck, and it looks like graduating engineers might be better at this than graduating political scientists.

I don't see any conspiracies (nefarious or otherwise) here; just attempts at simple-minded solutions to complex problems ( It would be a mistake to read more into renewed emphasis on STEM disciplines than what actually exists. There is still plenty of room for graduating students in the social sciences and humanities.

Dean Dad, I do find it a little odd that you feel the need to defend your old stomping grounds, when you also periodically complain about the inadvisability of earning graduate degrees in over-subscribed disciplines such as the social sciences and humanities! Do you feel the same way about earning graduate degrees in STEM disciplines?

When I look back at my HS years, I remember an excellent sociology (and, I think, psychology) class. That and a great government class offered interesting reading and writing opportunities along with learning about something other than my primary STEM interests. A big plus was that the teachers in those classes could also grade your writing.

I disagree with the comment about not being able to measure outcomes for a course on national government. I would start with a short list of "Jay walking" questions and the usual suspects from the periodic surveys of American ignorance of their own system of government, and add something more contemporary, like whether 51 votes constitutes "control" of the US Senate.

And, yes, there may be too many degrees in some STEM disciplines, but at least my own field has measured and reported those numbers, including academic and non-academic job stats, for more than a half century. Anyone who cares can see them, and we were well aware of the poor academic job situation when I started down the primrose path. It seems to me that some fields have no idea that there are any jobs at all at the CC level.
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