This Just In: A Political Commentator is Wrong about Political Science

Via Henry Farrell at the Monkey Cage, I came across an essay in the Weekly Standard entitled “Is Political Science Dying.” Stephen Hayward, a visiting fellow at Pepperdine Law School, makes the case that political science is too divorced from politics, too mathematical, too model-based and abstract. The motivating observation is a good one: given massive interest in contemporary politics, why aren’t students flocking to political science?

one reason is that the fundamental questions of justice have either gone missing from most political science curricula, or more often are only anemically discussed. This is the plague of the social sciences, where issues of justice are reduced to the category of “normative” questions, which, being subjective, are not treated seriously. They are not even much discussed in many classes. It might be more accurate to call them the “anti-social sciences.”

Farrell takes him to task on the evidence that he brings to bear: there’s not a lot of evidence that declining enrollments at Stanford are representative of the discipline, his sample of anecdotes is skewed, and there are plenty of other good explanations (like the collapse of the legal job market) that might explain the same trend.

One might also wonder what exactly a political commentator with a PhD in American studies who teaches(?) at a law school knows about what happens inside of the undergraduate political science classroom. Or puzzle at the claim that students “flock to radical courses.” Our humanities friends would be delighted if this were true.

Those points aside, here is another view.* What if the problem is that political science as taught isn’t technical enough?

Here is how this argument would work. College students understand (albeit imperfectly) the labor markets that they face upon graduation. College is expensive, loans are burdensome. This creates an incentive to obtain skills in college. Model-based disciplines that teach abstract thinking in a technical framework have the benefit of conveying the perception that there are skills to be learned, and that those skills are marketable in the knowledge economy. The issue with faculty such as me is that we keep prattling on about justice on the anniversary of the Indonesian killings, and students think they need to develop some hard skills. We should to be giving them courses with titles like Strategic Thinking and Non-Market Strategy in Asia, and exposing them to coding, data management, and analytics.

I can’t test this argument in a way that Henry Farrell (or I) would prefer, not in a way that supports a causal argument. But I can give impressionistic evidence, in the form of three questions.

1. Do we live in a higher education landscape where technical training (STEM, etc.) is viewed as legitimately and self-evidently the route to both individual career success and national prosperity?
2. Is economics collapsing in enrollment?
3. Are the critical humanities rising in enrollment?

If the answer to these three questions is YES-NO-NO, then Hayward is, plausibly, exactly wrong about political science. It’s not proof, and I am in no means in favor of actually turning political science into economics. But it might help us to diagnose exactly why Hayward has the impression that political science is in trouble.


* This view is by no means representative of the department where I teach, or of my employer.

Comments 2

  1. jj December 18, 2015

    “what exactly a political commentator with a PhD in American studies who teaches(?) at a law school knows about what happens inside of the undergraduate political science classroom”

    Well, he did teach classes at CU Boulder while he was the Conservative fellow.

  2. jtlevy2014Jacob T. Levy December 19, 2015

    To kind of bolster this hypothesis: it’s notorious that at Stanford *all* liberal arts majors have seen precipitous declines as interest in tech majors has boomed for obvious reasons. Even econ, as I recall, is barely holding steady.

    But by being the elite university at the epicenter of the tech economy, Stanford is in an anomalous position, and it’s not at all clear that it represents any trends outside itself.

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