Change and the Liberal Arts


The seven liberal arts from Hortus Deliciarum, Die Philosophie mit den sieben freien Künsten of Herrad of Landsberg. Date circa 1180. Wikipedia Commons.

Michael Lind has a book review in the National Interest that is relevant far beyond the field of International Relations. In this well-written essay Lind discusses Michael Desch’s recent book Cult of the Irrelevant. When I was in graduate school, thinkers such as Paul Kennedy would travel to Washington, DC to talk to members of Congress. Those days are long gone, and in general academics’ influence over policy making in International Relations has declined steadily. In the current era of populism and nationalism it would be easy to depict this state of affairs as being a symptom of the anti-intellectualism of American society. But the reality is that this trend extends beyond the United States.

As Lind and Desch discuss, academics’ valuing of theory has made their work increasingly abstract, to the point that even addressing topics that have clear policy implications can be viewed as a negative in some departments. Faculty who work in government or with policy are viewed as tainted. Since the 1940s scholarship has become progressively divorced from policy questions. I won’t try to summarize Lind’s excellent discussion. Suffice it to say that both his review and Desch’s book capture powerful academic trends.

Theory is important in that provides a framework for people not only to understand the world, but also to think critically about key decisions. There is no escaping theory, as every policy is based on beliefs, whether they are made explicit or not. Such theories are critical to implementing policies, whether it entails drawing on the work of Amartya Sen to understand famines, or Realism to explain war. One cannot understand contemporary economic policy unless you know the thought of Keynes and Hayek. Everyone involved in development should be familiar with the key thinkers of dependency theory and neoliberalism. Theories provide a toolbox with which to approach policy. Marx’s grave is in Highgate Cemetery in London. And on his tomb perhaps his most famous quote is embossed in gold: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.”

Despite the power of theory, an excessive love of abstract systems -divorced from real world concerns- can leave academics chasing shadows, to the point that their conversations become increasingly self-referential and obscure. In political science and international sociology, a quantitative approach has led to wonderful studies such as Ann Hironaka’s Neverending Wars. And it has led to a plethora of abstruse projects that border on metaphysics. While reading the work of academic positivists can leave one depressed, in the humanities the impact of post-modernism has led to works that are so contrived and artificial that not only is it hard to find any relevance in  their work, but also it’s hard to be believe that the authors ever wished it to have any.  Of course, there is a wealth of good theoretical work still being done, particularly in the area of Feminist Theory. But in our field there is a mistrust of policy-based research.  As Desch and Lind describe, while academics deride those thinkers who engage with policy questions, policymakers increasingly view academics’ work as irrelevant.

I believe that this trend in academics’ scholarship has reflected a parallel trend regarding the Liberal Arts, which have been misshapen into an shibboleth that stands for opposition to change. A decade ago I was a Vice-Provost for Undergraduate Studies at my university, whose job entailed in part promoting the Liberal Arts. At the time, there was a significant effort to adapt the Liberal Arts to the contemporary world by the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU). At the core of AACU’s project was LEAP, which stood for Liberal Education and America’s Promise. The central idea of this project was that by emphasizing essential learning outcomes, high impact practices, and key principles of excellence, institutions could reinvigorate the Liberal Arts. In part, this effort was driven by a perception that parents and society as a whole were devaluing the Liberal Arts, which they perceived as being out of touch with the needs of the contemporary jobs market. I spent four years involved in this work, attending AACU conferences, and working with other administrators about this project. I deeply believed in this effort, and I also think that it failed. Based on my conversations with students, the perception that the Liberal Arts are intellectually isolated from the modern world is deeper now than in 2006.

While AACU continues its excellent advocacy work, one small liberal arts college after another is closing, particularly in the northeast where I live. While the Liberal Arts can promote a breadth of vision, and an ability to adapt, too often academics have adopted his framework to express a disdain for the real world. In practice, this has often translated into anything that might have relevance for students’ success on the job market, such as skills and internships.

Years ago, my colleague Kim Brown and I wrote a textbook, An Introduction to International and Global Studies, which were are currently updating. As the external reviewers gave their reports to the University of North Carolina press, I was delighted to see that they really liked the text. Except for one point. Our final chapter was titled “Where to go Next” and it focused on career opportunities in the field. More than one of the reviewers said that this chapter was too vocational and should be removed. Kim and I believed strongly that it should remain. It is to the press’s credit that the textbook appeared with this chapter intact. In many years since, my students have thanked me for this chapter, which they have said was the most valuable part of the book because it gave them a vision for their future.

I do not believe that there is a contradiction between wanting to teach our students to be global citizens and critical thinkers and giving them information and skills to be successful in a career. In my department I am the main student supervisor for internships. I have placed students at Catholic Family Charities, the Portland Business Alliance, World Oregon, Western Farmworkers’ Association, a local Asian art gallery, the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization (IRCO), a U.S. consulate in China and a plethora of other organizations. For my students, this is often the most powerful part of their education. Many of my students find jobs through this experience, although this is not often at the organization where they work, but rather through some connection that they make during their internship. My students write weekly reports and a final paper, so there is an opportunity for them to reflect on their work, and to put it into an academic context. I don’t receive any pay for this work, despite the fact that it entails a great deal of my time. That’s not the point. But there are many departments where internships are frowned upon as being excessively vocational, and strict limits are placed on how many internship credits students are allowed to do. Faculty don’t encourage internships, because they perceive that it lets students “get away” with working rather than true study.

I believe that the Liberal Arts in too many departments and universities have become a banner, which represents opposition to anything that might challenge the ivory tower, past approaches to pedagogy, and work of limited relevance to the real-world. This intellectual framework mirrors the disdain for policy-orientated scholarship. Of course, since my unit is currently in the College of Urban and Public Affairs, where there is a deep network of partnerships outside the institution, my experience is different. But I sometimes feel that I live in an intellectual oasis. In general many advocates of the Liberal Arts remind me of Confucian scholars in late Qing China, who were teaching the eight-legged essay (八股文) to students who were living in an area of railroads, machine guns, and imperialism. When academic speakers start to talk about the Medieval origins of the Liberal Arts, and the quadrivium and trivium, my heart falls like a stone down a well.

The Liberal Arts were not designed to isolate academics in an ivory tower, where they could count the number of angels on the heads of a pin. Rather, they represented an effort to preserve the critical thought of classical antiquity. If they are to survive, they need to remain relevant. There is so much change that needs to take place in academia. We need to create online tracks in most departments to better serve student needs. We need to give students more real-world experience, through internships and related work. Academics should rethink their assignments to give students skills that employers value in the digital age. Professors need to adopt the Negotiated Syllabus and Universal Design. We need to close the gap between practitioners and academics not only in International Studies but also in all disciplines. We need to find ways to offer students an education much less expensively. This does not mean surrendering to the business model. It means valuing the needs of not only our students, but also their parents and potential employers. We especially need to rethink graduate education, which in my opinion (and that of many graduate students) is badly broken.  As academics, we collectively need to not only embrace change, but also to lead it. I’ve talked before about the challenges and changes facing history. But we need to make deep changes in all fields. And we need to recommit to creating scholarship that addresses the critical needs of our communities and nations.

I recommend reading Lind’s review and Desch’s work, particularly if you are in International or Global Studies. It speaks to issues far beyond the field of Security Studies.

Michael C. Desch, Cult of the Irrelevant: The Waning Influence of Social Science on National Security. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2019.

Shawn Smallman, 2019



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