State of the Field

Something of a follow-up to my post about CollegeClassroom.Net:

Orangutans in WheelbarrowWhat is the knowledge signified by a bachelor’s degree in political science? A college graduate who majored in psychology, economics, or anthropology probably encountered the same concepts, often in the same sequence, as those encountered by graduates in the same major at other colleges and universities. These academic disciplines have standards for undergraduate curricula that, for the most part, are commonly accepted. The American Psychological Association, for example,  publishes guidelines for the undergraduate psychology major.

Perhaps the American Political Science Association has published a similar document, but if so, I couldn’t find it. So I used the Open Syllabus Project to scope out the state of the field at the undergraduate level. Kudos to The New York Times for first bringing Open Syllabus to my attention.

A search on syllabi for politics courses, restricted to the USA, reveals Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations as the most frequently-assigned text over the last decade. This is not good. Huntington was a giant of comparative politics, but Clash of Civilizations is probably his worst work. The ideas he presents are vaguely defined, not consistently operationalized, and in some cases, ignorant of geography and history. The title and tone of the book engender xenophobia.

I seriously doubt Clash of Civilizations is being assigned as an example of how not to do political science. Perhaps instructors believe the content is engaging to the U.S. typical college student, at least compared to Aristotle’s The Politics and Plato’s The Republic (ranked fourth and thirteenth on the list, respectively). That would explain why Benjamin Barber’s Jihad vs. McWorld is at #15 and Thomas Friedman’s The Lexus and the Olive Tree is at #19, while The Pelopponesian War by Thucydides is #21.

Here’s the problem: privileging form to the exclusion of substance badly serves the population being exposed to the discipline. Jihad vs. McWorld presents globalization as a choice between the economically-inaccurate race to the bottom hypothesis and those evil Muslims who shouldn’t be allowed in the USA. Friedman’s work is just as bad with its illogical memes and  irrelevant anecdotes — actually, it’s worse, given that his prose is the stylistic equivalent of a piñata that’s been dropped into a woodchipper (see Flathead for further explanation).

On the other hand, requiring that undergrads — less than one percent of whom will go on to graduate programs in political science — pick through dense, difficult-to-read texts as a means of giving them a “firm grounding” in the discipline isn’t a great approach either. I remember trying and failing to stay awake with Karl Polanyi’s Great Transformation (#24) in my hands,  and although Orientialism is an idea that I think all undergraduates should understand, I would not subject them to the convoluted sentences of Edward Said’s book (#36).*

Given that the “canon” of political science is a mess, the degree to which many undergraduate curricula convey the fundamental principles and methods of the discipline probably leaves much to be desired.

*I am now educated enough to generally know what I don’t know, and I realize that I have finite amounts of time and effort to remedy that deficiency. Therefore I set priorities according to my interests. While some might argue that I should be an expert on the epistemological implications of Aristotle’s ideal forms, I much prefer learning about breakfast. College students often share this mentality, and I’m content to meet them where they are.

2 Replies to “State of the Field”

  1. If you feel the same way you do maybe you should consider editing a selection of passages from the books you consider that shou even in a modern and valuable collection.



  2. Well … actually the APSA did issue such guidelines back in 1991. Walkhe’s “Liberal Learning and the Political Science Major: A Report to the Profession” (PS 24 (1): 48 – 60) does a pretty good overview of what political science programs wet doing at the time and what they have to do in future. The ideas are still relevant. Take a look.

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