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?