The Curricular Bottleneck

BottleneckAn addendum to my previous post on curricular design in political science and the Handbook on Teaching and Learning in Political Science and International Relations.

As pointed out by Fletcher McClellan’s opening chapter in the Handbook , the 1991 Wahlke report described the design of most undergraduate political science curricula as driven more by bureaucratic convenience than by deep learning. In McClellan’s view, the “biggest obstacle to curriculum reform remains the inability of the discipline to come to an agreement on the goals of political science education” (Handbook, p. 12).

While the purpose of undergraduate education in political science might be up for debate, the form of that education is not, as noted by the Wahlke and McClellan. Disciplinary study is typically a distribution model of at least one course each in comparative, IR, theory, and American subfields, sometimes with an additional course in research methods. Throw in some electives and you have a major.

Note that the above system, because of its focus on form, says very little about what political science majors actually should learn, as indicated by the variety of books discussed in my previous post. But the problem goes far deeper, because only a tiny proportion of undergraduates become political science majors. The overwhelming majority of college students encounter the discipline, if they do at all, through general education requirements — often a single course in American government. Most political science education in the USA is thus delivered through institutionally- rather than disciplinary-driven constraints. Under these constraints, curricular design becomes a zero-sum game where representatives of academic disciplines seek to preserve a presence in the university’s menu of general education requirements.

But wait, there’s more. In their approach to curricular design, faculty members have a tendency toward confirmation and false uniqueness biases. They think that the best education is one that replicates what they fondly remember about their own collegiate experiences. After all, it worked for them, didn’t it? Again we have a flaw in the system: from a statistical standpoint, college students are not younger, more attractive versions of professors.