Ruminations on Political Science II
(continued from this)
For all the "teaching" activities I discussed yesterday, there are two aspects: the CONTENT of the knowledge being transferred, and the techniques or methods of transferral.
I want to make three particular claims, each a bit stronger and more stark than what I actually believe, for the sake of...well, for fun.
1. There is less agreement on the CONTENT of learning that constitutes mastery of political science than for any other social science discipline, and far less than for any science discipline. This lack of intellectual coherence is a great advantage of the discipline, in that it is ecumenical. But the unwillingness of most departments to confront artificial separations in what we think of as the CONTENT of political science works to the detriment of our teaching, particularly in the way that we teach graduate students (who must choose, and be catechized, in one or another schismatic denomination. Political Science is the BAPTISTS of academic disciplines). If you were to do a survey of political scientists, the disagreement over what is an "interesting question" would differ markedly. The thing that is most surprising to me is the very visceral reaction people have to questions that are NOT interesting. In describing a research program to my colleagues at Duke, describing a research program of a young person I thought was pretty impressive, the reaction of my Duke colleagues (a pretty open place!) is sometimes (I can quote it): "Yuck! That's awful." In other social sciences, it would be more likely, "I don't know much about that," or perhaps, "That's interesting; I wouldn't have thought of that." That yuck reaction is a problem: I would go so far as to claim that there is more interest in "interdisciplinary" work (uniting one branch of political science with an external discipline) than there is in crossing intradisciplinary membranes.
2. There is wide diversity in the method or technique of transferral, and this again is a potential strength. There are many ways that Political Science is taught, and there are many good ways to teach it. Furthermore, at Duke as I'm sure is true at many of your institutions, there is a tradition of commitment to teaching the in Political Science department. But I wonder whether we have substituted form for substance. Teaching, and taking, Political Science classes is fun. But what is that is being accomplished? Our subject is intrinsically more interesting than studying economics, or sociology, or psychology, yet the insights of learning those other approaches, because they are more coherent AS approaches, are more lasting. Are the intellectual rewards of learning what we call Political Science, in your undergraduate classrooms, ephemeral? Is our focus on technique, rather than content, simply described by MacBeth's "tale told by an idiot: full of sound and fury, signifying nothing?" At your universities, is Political Science a ghetto? Your best students are very good, sure. But are your worst students simply refugees from other departments, turned away by those departments because they insisted on learning and long study?
3. The chief schism in political science is between what we might call normative approaches and positivist/empirical approaches. The grand tradition of political science is its normative foundation: what is the nature of the good society? Have we lost sight of these great questions? And why is it that students of normative theory are allowed, and even by many faculty encouraged, to conduct their cultic study off in some windowless room, without reference to the real questions of relation of means to ends, and without study of the engineering principles formal theory and institutional theory could teach them? Why is it that formal theory and empirically oriented students peer through their kaleidescopes into political worlds that are, or that might be, without any interest in asking whether those worlds might be good? As an outsider, trained in another discipline, but now for 20 years a resident of Political Science, I find the magnitude and temper of the split between normative and positive or empirical approaches to be incomprehensible. Not only do normative theorists think formal theorists are wrong, they often think they are evil. Not only do formal theorists think normative theorists are useless, they think they are pre-modern cultists. We are not well served by schism. But from where might come a rejoining, a commitment to a new synthesis, bringing political science back to its roots as both a study of the good society and means of bringing it about?