Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Experiencing disciplines 

A note on Phi Beta Cons tells of Cal State-Northridge creating a new major in Central American Studies. This is nothing new. When I visited at Pitzer College in the early 1990s, there was a mild dust-up over the creation of an Asian-American studies program at a relatively small college that had an Asian Studies program already. Like CSUN's, the rationale for this program was that the "experience" of the Asian-American was not reflected in the Asian Studies curriculum.

George Leef thinks "that a college education should focus on mastering bodies of knowledge rather than studying 'experiences,'" and he's right but for more reasons than just giving a student a better education. Focusing on the experience allows the faculty member to ignore any disciplinary or professional standards. Economics as a field is more than just "studying the economic experience". It has a scientific standard; it works from some very basic assumptions about how people decide, and the natural social condition of transacting. Those who find the logic that follows those assumptions leading to conclusions that don't feel good -- that give them a bad experience -- reject the whole idea that there is a discipline. (I feel an A is A moment coming on, hang on a second while I get coffee.) It grants charlatans the cover of grayness by blurring any distinctions. I'm aware that this happens in other disciplines as well, and those that have not held fast to scientific standards have been more susceptible to the blurring.

Thomas Sowell has long argued that reforming the university could be greatly helped by striking down all departments with the word "studies" in their name. A few good ones might be tossed out with the bathwater, but most of those could be absorbed back into the disciplines that their faculty properly belong.