What should the colleges do?


Richard W. Crockett


The interdisciplinary approach to education emphasizes a kind of cross fertilization in the student’s fields of study, and highlights the intellectual connections between and among different fields. The example of this effort, which combines political science and economics is sometimes called political economy. Attempts at merging the two fields have occurred more than once. Sixty or seventy years ago it occurred in combining the fields, when both political science and economics were fields of study typically housed in colleges of arts and sciences. Illinois had a United States Senator, Paul H. Douglas who held a Ph.D. in political economy and taught at the University of Chicago. But the marriage between the fields was not seen as a happy one and by and by the practice declined in favor of the traditional separation of the two fields. The question often arose, “what would holders of such a degree preparation do”? “What would they teach or where would they work”? So the practicalities of the day of job placement among other things had its inevitable impact.


Later attempts at combining the two fields have arisen in part inspired by knowledge of the history of the fields where “better” organizational kinship was identified in housing departments of economics inside schools of business at universities and in combination with departments of business in smaller colleges. To some this seemed to be a more congenial interdisciplinary marriage. But these efforts always impact the traditional fields of study. I am of the opinion that when departments of economics were housed inside colleges of arts and science, the study of economics was shaped more by emphasis upon macro-economics, and focused upon national economic policy and the larger economic system. It was a field interested in welfare economics, labor economics and the economics of public purpose, although it may not have always been called that. It was interested in management of the national economy and the equitable distribution of wealth and income.  After a widespread practice of housing economics departments in schools of business, the field was increasingly shaped, it seems to me, by micro-economics, or the economics of the firm. Consequently, the values of the business community became a driving force behind the field. The economics of the firm may be thought of as the economics of private purpose. Here social equity is not the driving value, rather efficiency is, and the measure of success is not some version of social justice, but the satisfactory bottom line or profit for the firm. This may play out even to the detriment of the national economy. We are acquainted with the practice of plant closings and the “shipping of jobs overseas” because it is profitable to do so. Some will argue that this is a continuation of trade, but it certainly is not trade in the traditional sense, for here it involves not an exchange of product for money, but the exporting of the activity of production and receiving nothing in return. An extremely brazen example of this occurred recently when Haliburton announced that it was moving its operations to Dubai, this after billions of dollars in income from the American taxpayers for contracts with the American people to supply the war effort in Iraq. One may argue that it is quite a leap to contend that the way in which one organizes today’s colleges and attendant educational policy leads to the practice of shipping jobs overseas. But I submit that the point of academic reorganization and educational policy is to impact the end product in the form of knowledge and values in an institution’s graduating students—we may reap what we sow.


As new approaches to the study of the social sciences emerged, scholars looked to unify the social sciences around research methodology. The chosen method was “empirical” methodology, emphasizing the scientific method. This “empiricism” frequently relied upon gathering numeric data, a process called “quantification.” Critics of this research approach in the social sciences protested that the method became “the criterion for theoretical relevance,” and as a result the social sciences defined by the method of research were unified in the minds of proponents, around that method. Consequently, identifying fields of study by subject matter content was seen as passé. This particular strategy for interdisciplinary study seemed to be as a matter of logic, and on the face of it, self-defeating, for in becoming interdisciplinary in this manner the affect is to define the subject matter disciplines out of existence. How can it be called “interdisciplinary” where there are no academic disciplines? From this perspective, there was no longer political science, sociology, economics, and psychology, for example, but only “social science.” The subject matter content is no longer the means for recognizing a field of study.


Resistance to this approach to “interdisciplinary study” came from entrenched academic interests and by the practical inability of the new “scientific method” to deal with the traditional interests of academicians. The motive was for the researcher to be “value free” in his research and scientific in his method, but quantification of data allowed the researcher to deal with only some of the traditional subject matter of the fields of study. For example while in political science it was easy and even helpful to look at voting behavior and opinion data, it was hard to measure concepts such as “justice,” “sovereignty”, and “power” through quantitative methods. Nor could political philosophy or ideology be studied in a traditional way through scientific method. In the case of the practitioners of “the new science of politics,” subjects such as justice, power and ideology became illegitimate subject matter for study because they were inaccessible by sensory experience and were seen as not being scientific expressions of the discipline. For the traditional students of politics, there remained a desire for more “philosophical” or traditional approaches to fields of social science, and these remained in play. The result was academic division not integration.


A systematic strategy in the search for knowledge and the existence of organizational categories helps to make the educational task manageable. Think about the meaning of analysis and synthesis. As it applies to knowledge, the term, analysis, means breaking a field of study down into its constituent parts. Synthesis refers to pulling together disparate parts into a single meaningful whole. Accordingly, social science is broken down into fields of study called sociology, anthropology, economics, geography, psychology, political science, etc. Such a strategy can be a useful aid in “getting a handle” on learning. But if the goal is to have fields of knowledge “talk to each other,” hoping for an interdisciplinary affect, this requires that we maintain fields of knowledge. We cannot simply knock down all the boundaries, which identify disciplines as such. Still it is possible to achieve work product synthesis, but such a synthesis of knowledge must come from points of contact between fields of study, so that the synthesis imports information with an enhanced perspective from various fields and has a substantive cross-relevance.


Still, the idea of interdisciplinary education has an intellectual “sexyness” that is appealing when marketing academic programs and this pitch is often used by colleges and universities alike. The market appeal, I believe is in the promise that while acquiring a mountain of information during the course of one’s education, the interdisciplinary idea holds out the promise of somehow helping to make sense of it all. To some, this may sound like the “search for truth” fashionable in an earlier era, or understanding knowledge as a “universal whole,” where Newtonian science is able to explain God’s Divine Plan. It even echoes Alexander Pope that, “whatever is, is right.” Pretty conservative. The question for me is paradoxical. Does the “opening up” of inquiry by means of interdisciplinary study through integration of fields of knowledge lead to a closing down of some modes and subjects of inquiry? Or in contrast, does the maintenance of distinct sub-fields of knowledge, although traditional and conservative in appearance, turn out to be the most liberating educationally?  And which is the most appropriate for the liberal arts college?


Richard W. Crockett is a retired professor of Political Science at Western Illinois University