In the past few months, there has been a seeming up-tick in mocking other disciplines or sub-fields of our disciplines (or even Geography, as a whole), and even suggestions to cut entire programs. One of the more obnoxious and recent being, of course, the piece, The Most Persuasive Case for Eliminating Black Studies? Just Read the Dissertations, in the Chronicle of Higher Ed last month that lead to the firing of a staff blog writer.
Earlier this year, Stephen Johnston, the past president of the GAC, a current professor and “head” of at the School of Earth and Ocean Science at Victoria wrote an article for Geolog (the newsletter of the Geological Association of Canada) titled, Get Rid of Geography Departments, in which he states:
We need to get rid of Geography departments. If I had my way I would get rid of Geography as a field of study. I would get it out of our high schools, out of the universities, and out of the public eye. And I would remove funding for Geography departments as individual entities.
What ensued was a rather heated debate about the worth of Geography and it’s role, particularly within the area of climate change. Namely, that Geography may as well and roll over into the earth sciences.
Then, just recently, the House of Representatives voted to eliminate National Science Foundation funding for Political Science research on that grounds that it is “meritless.” This came on the heels of Rep. Jeff Flake trying to cut NSF funding by $1 billion. When he lost that battle, he singled out Political Science – an area study that doles out a measly $11 million a year.
On a post about the rising number of PhDs having to rely on food stamps for survival, someone rather blithely made the comment, “Well, getting a PhD in Medieval Studies is just plain irresponsible.” I’ve heard similar attacks on “16th Century French Literature” and on the humanities and social sciences more generally.
I disagree with all of this on several counts, but let’s start with the most basic – namely, that we have got to stop picking on each other. In this increasingly polarizing political and social climate (not to mention economic – but we’ll get to that in another post), academics need to use those critical thinking skills that we’re so fond of touting, and recognize that we only hurt all of us with this kind of vitriol. I have used the work of scholars of the “16th Century French Literature” to help students understand the erasure of women in histories of conflict and revolution so that they can come to understand that women have been and certainly still are important actors in politics and in war. Without literature, many women would have disappeared completely. I have used scholarly work of Medieval History to trace the rupture in charity and philanthropy that has lead to the pervasive arguments about “deserving” and “undeserving poor,” particularly in the context of the New World and the (misguided) American pride in their generosity. We all have used the work of others in fields that seem so far afield from our own to come to understand how we are today. And as Gaytri Spivak reminded Geographers at the latest AAG’s, our disciplinary approach is particular to each of our fields. No matter how interdisciplinary we any of us become, there is an ontological and epistemological groundedness to our work that defies total understanding from those outside our field (my parents still ask me, worriedly, what a person does with a PhD in Geography).
The difficulty is actually with how we value education. A recent Op-Ed in the NYT by Frank Bruni, The Imperiled Promise of College, points to recent data that suggests that students holding degrees in philosophy, humanities, history, anthropology, zoology, and art history are the most likely to be un- or under-employed in the U.S. right now. His solution, an echo of sentiments rattling through Congress and across the media, is that students need to get so-called practical degrees like science and engineering. These are degrees that get jobs. And then they can pay back those pesky loans.
But what does it say about a country that values the ability to perform in particularly instrumental ways over the ability to think creatively, critically, or thoughtfully about the worth of the existence of all of us? I’m not saying that the sciences disallow this, i’m saying that there is so much worth in being able to do this freely and well. And if the real question (as so many people seem to imply) is the student loan issue – why isn’t education free? What is wrong with a culture that prizes the worth of an education for its own value, not for its ultimate contribution to GDP?
Living in Seattle, it’s inevitable that i have many friends in the IT / software / gaming / online / everything-to-do-with-compters field. When i describe the courses i teach, i’m often asked to send my students to them for interviews. Their biggest complaint with people with the “right” degrees? The new hires are incapable of independent and critical thought. One program manager at Microsoft said new hires with Computer Science degrees require two-years of hand-holding to get them to the point of thinking for themselves. The learning curve is huge.
Let me be clear: this is not a slight against CS or any other program of study.
What i’m saying is that we need to take a step back and a step down before we go bashing other disciplines or sub-fields. We need to reconsider what it is that we value in the world. We need to take a class outside our discipline, go to a lecture that doesn’t sound that interesting, chat with a professor who might be able to point you in the right direction about some obscure and tiny piece of your own work. But most importantly, we need to support each other. We need to acknowledge that, even when we can’t personally see the worth of a field, that it has an intrinsic worth that is far beyond ourselves.
We academics like to complain about the neoliberalization of the academy, but i am far more worried about the neoliberalization of individuals. When we instrumentalize each other, our education, and other departments, we become the instruments of destruction for each other.