It seems every year we have more proof that American universities are failing to engage in civic education, especially if we understand the concept as requiring meaningful reflection about the nature and purposes of government rather than just an awareness of the mechanisms of our government. There are exceptions, but for the most part, it seems unreasonable to expect much from the cafeteria-style general education curriculum required at most colleges. It is just as often remarked that even the civic education that some college students might encounter does not help, either—at least if you are a U.S. citizen who cares about fostering morally serious debate about the legitimate purposes of government in shaping our lives.
The first problem with the phrase “political science” is that “science” is a god-term in the United States. Perhaps not as much as it was in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but many folks still hear “science” and think it’s a claim to a settled body of True Knowledge. (This is the regrettable way science is still often taught to students in elementary school and above; that, or as a cook-book approach to investigating the physical world, which is almost as sad.) Plus natural scientists and engineers held extremely high standing in America from the late 19th century through most of the 20th century. So in choosing to name the discipline “political science” over a century ago, disciplinary scholars were no doubt aiming to crib some of the divine aura of “Science!” for themselves.
Further, during this time, “Science!” was tied up with the Whig narrative of ever-increasing Progress, human achievement, and human liberty; with the expectation of extending human control over the very forces of nature itself. “Social science” and “political science” aspired to share in this scientistic teleology, with disciplines purporting to develop scientific expertise regarding the human subject with the goal of improving (and controlling) human life and humanity itself.
We tend to forget how much pull terming something as “Science!” had during this period. Indeed, one of the real pulls of Marxism for American intellectuals in the first half of the 2oth century, as the Coen Brothers’ recent movie, Hail Caesar, hilariously reminds us, was its claim to be a scientific theory.
Almost seventy years ago, C.P. Snow famously warned of a split between two cultures in our universities and society. The first was the scientific culture marked by rigorous modeling and empirical methods. That culture itself divided into defined specialties. The second was humanistic culture marked by a focus on rhetoric and the evaluation of ways of life. That culture was less specialized because it wanted to try to answer some of the great human questions that knew no boundaries.
Snow oddly enough left out the social sciences in general from his schema and law in particular, although the protagonist of his most famous novel, The Masters, was an academic lawyer. But that same cultural divide replicates itself in many of the social sciences and especially on top law schools faculties today. One kind of legal academic is scientific, concerned with models and empiricism. Those working on this side have defined methods—well cultivated gardens of the intellect. And this scholarship tends to be positive, looking at how the world is rather how it should be. The humanistic kind of scholarship is more discursive, sometimes of a bit of jumble. It is less specialized and tends to the normative.
Snow worried that the loss of a common culture would create cliques within universities and make it harder to solve social problems. Neither technocracy nor the refinement of moral ideals suffices to improve the world.
Americans have always been strivers. Since at least the 19th century we have been eager to file into lecture halls to be talked at by experts. Those obnoxious-seeming TED talks that I’ve tried to avoid are not a new feature of our national life. As others have pointed out, TED’s great-great-granddaddy is the Chautauqua, named for the rural meetings at Lake Chautauqua in New York state, which began in the 1870s and became a nationwide circuit of lectures and instructional assemblies.
Andrew Ferguson’s current feature essay in The Weekly Standard “The ‘Science’ of Same-Sex Marriage” considers the unique brief filed by Leon Kass and Harvey Mansfield in the Proposition 8 case that is now before the Court. Also discussed by Nelson Lund, the brief’s counsel of record, in Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal, the Kass-Mansfield brief does not engage in direct advocacy on behalf of the California law that bans same sex marriage in that state. Rather, the brief purports only to demonstrate that social science claims made in support of a radical departure from the principles of Western marriage law are quite inconclusive and are contrary to statements put forward by researchers and organizations like the American Psychological Association.