Sunday, June 23, 2013

Poli Sci? Really?

About once a week, the New York Times runs a piece that’s deliberately, rather than incidentally, about creeping philistinism.  

This week’s entry, The Decline and Fall of the English Major, is a mostly unremarkable example of the genre.  But it included a statistic that made me sit upright:

In 1991, 165 students graduated from Yale with a B.A. in English literature. By 2012, that number was 62. In 1991, the top two majors at Yale were history and English. In 2013, they were economics and political science.

Political science?  

I raise an eyebrow for a few reasons.  First, as longtime readers know, poli sci is my scholarly home.  I got my doctorate in it, with a focus on political philosophy.  I’ve taught poli sci at a host of colleges and universities, and spent plenty of years roaming the hallways of APSA with that distinctive mix of fear and desperation that theorists know well.  (Within the discipline, theory is very much the red-headed stepchild.)  Between the teaching and the conferences, my experience of political science was that it was selling something that very few were buying.  

In the 1990’s and early 2000’s, poli sci was a hard sell just about anywhere.  As liberal arts go, it was too grubby and applied for the humanists to endorse, but too theoretical and useless for the vocationally minded.  (For a long time, it survived mostly as the de facto pre-law major.)  And anyone who has tried to read the APSR can attest that the discipline didn’t do itself any favors in terms of reaching a broad audience.

Economics, I can understand; it’s about money.  It’s the closest thing to a Business major that the Ivies and snootier liberal arts places offer.  At Williams, the Econ major was popular among football players who went on to investment banks.  Now, apparently, it’s reaching beyond the usual suspects.

But poli sci is a mystery.  Historically, it was the default major for students who wanted to go on to law school.  But law school applications are falling fast, as prospective students hear horror stories of underemployment in the field combined with herniating student loan burdens.  Outside of the pre-law function, it remains no more vocationally useful than, say, history or English.  

More frighteningly, the poli sci boom -- if that’s what it is -- seems to be restricted to the elites.  It’s simply not happening at the community college level.  Here, the social science of choice is still psychology, as it has been for as long as I’ve been around.  On my own campus we have one full-time political scientist on the faculty, and he also teaches history.  

It’s possible that Yale is a fluke, of course.  Maybe there’s some uniquely charismatic political scientist there (?!) who’s a pied piper of students.  But if that isn’t the case -- and poli sci is gaining ground among elite institutions while remaining peripheral everywhere else -- then we have a different issue.  To the extent that poli sci helps explain and make familiar the workings of power -- at its best, that’s exactly what it does -- then seeing an increased class stratification in who takes it should be alarming.  The elites are studying more closely how power works, while the masses are ignoring it.   This does not lead anywhere good.

Alternately, this may be a Nate Silver effect.  To the extent that data analytics have improved and become cool, poli sci may be where students pick that up.  Yale isn’t known for quantitative work, but anything is possible.  And I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that the turn away from pre-law is less pronounced at the elites, since they’re likelier to feed into the elite law schools.  Grads from third-tier schools really struggle now, but grads from Harvard Law still do just fine.

If anything, tracing the workings of power is much more important for the non-elites.  People with money and connections will be fine; everyone else actually has something to worry about.  If discussions of money and power are restricted to those who already have both, I foresee the discussions becoming ever more provincial, and its blind spots ever larger.

The Times probably didn’t intend to make this point, but sometimes it trips over something good.  Wise and worldly readers, has anyone out there seen a poli sci boom in a community college setting?