Who is Killing off Political Science?

Given recent events on university campuses, it is not surprising that several writers have dealt with the subject.  Most have focused on political correctness’ pernicious effects on campus.

The latest number of The Weekly Standard (12/21/15) has an article by Steven F. Hayward (“Is Political Science Dying?”) that does not deal with PC in Academe per se, but may be related. Political science departments have been essential parts of colleges/universities for nearly a century.  If undergraduates are less and less likely to major in political science, American higher education may be in for hard times.

A visiting professor of history at Pepperdine University, Hayward has written several books, including two excellent analyses of Ronald Reagan’s political career, The Age of Reagan:  The Fall of the Old Liberal Order:  1964-1980 and The Age of Reagan:  The Conservative Counterrevolution, 1980-1989.

Inspiration for Hayward’s essay is the recent decision by Stanford University’s political science department -- among the best departments in the nation -- to revise its undergraduate program in light of persistent declining numbers of students choosing to major in the department.  (Inside Higher Education’s report on Stanford’s revamped program also noted that there was a 4.5% drop in the number of degrees in that discipline awarded by U.S. colleges/universities between 2008 and 2013.)

Hayward begins with what seems to be an anomaly:  many of today’s students claim they are deeply concerned about “social justice” and so on.  One would think, therefore, that they would find political science, “which … engag[es] the issue of justice more directly than other social sciences,” an especially appealing major.

One wonders how sincere many students’ concerns about social justice are.  Could at least some of the blather be proffered just so students can feel good about themselves, without any intention to fulfill the obligations such bleating entails?

(It’s embarrassing to harbor such dark thoughts.)

Returning to Hayward’s essay, he notes that fewer and fewer undergraduates are majoring in political science at Stanford.  Why?  He believes that “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.”  Hayward contends “[t]his is the (his italics) plague of the social sciences, where issues of justice are reduced to the category of ‘normative’ questions, which, being subjective, are not treated seriously.”

The major culprits for diminished focus on justice are the reward structure of publishing especially in social science journals, which has a major impact on academic careers, and increased specialization in political science.  Hayward claims that the typical political science article these days “is largely a mathematical exercise” that mostly side-steps questions connected to values.  In short, “political science often goes mute” as soon as normative matters crop up.  Increased specialization conforms “to the dictates of modern academia, which has sacrificed the liveliness and engagement with the real world of politics that attracts … public-spirited students.”

Hayward juxtaposes the shriveled numbers of political science majors at Stanford with robust enrollments in the discipline at Bowdoin College and the Claremont McKenna College.  What are those departments doing right that Stanford evidently isn’t?  Hayward claims that colleges/universities with thriving undergraduate political science programs “teach the subject the old-fashioned way, and understand politics as more an art than a science, usually combined with a serious historical perspective.”

Declining numbers of undergraduates majoring in political science cannot be attributed to a specific reason.

It is likely that declining enrollments in law schools also mean fewer undergraduates choosing to major in political science.  (Historically, many students intending to pursue a career in law have majored in political science as undergraduates.) 

Political science also suffers the fate Hayward notes for sociology, which is also experiencing declining numbers of undergraduate majors:  the so-called “Studies” departments’ proliferation eats into political science and sociology programs.

Hayward rightly notes that changes in political science’s main foci could be responsible for declining numbers of undergraduate majors, but he overlooks the ones that may be most important.  Traditionally, political science was concerned with questions of power, rule, legitimacy, and, yes, justice.  In recent decades, however, the discipline has increasingly focused on matters related to inequality or identity politics -- black, Hispanic, Asian, or gender politics, etc. -- each to be addressed with political correctness.

Diversity in interests and political orientations has been supplanted by mind-numbing conformity. 

Why major in a discipline in which the “right” answers are already determined?

Hayward also implies that political scientists’ use of “mathematical exercises,” i.e., quantitative methods, probably turns many undergraduates away. 

Undergraduates -- some of whom are allergic to math -- should not have to slog through advanced statistics as part of their major program.  There is nothing wrong, however, with exposing undergraduates to elementary statistical material.  Our government increasingly communicates to citizens through numbers, not always appropriate to the topic and/or accurate or even consistently measured.  The citizen needs to understand numbers-based messages to protect herself/himself against propaganda.

Most important, fewer and fewer political scientists rely primarily on quantitative methods.  More and more utilize almost entirely qualitative, i.e., non-statistical, material.  It would not be difficult for an undergraduate to avoid extensive exposure to “mathematical exercises” as he/she progresses through the political science major.

Hayward writes that the Stanford department employs excellent scholars, including some who are “conservative or at least sympathetic to conservative perspectives on modern politics.”  Therefore, “this is not a case of a department self-marginalizing through ideology.”

Hayward’s dismissal of ideological reasons for declining undergraduate majors at Stanford and in American institutions of higher learning generally may be premature.

Daniel Klein and his students have written several papers detailing American social scientists’ partisan and ideological leanings.  One provides information about Stanford University political scientists’ partisanship.

Klein finds that social scientists are much more likely to identify as Democrats than as Republicans, and their ideological proclivities are far to the left of the typical citizen’s. Klein’s findings dovetail with studies by David Horowitz, among others.   

Klein and Western ascertained the voter registration records of most members of Stanford’s political science department before the 2004 elections.  They found that the D-R ratio among those Stanford political scientists that could be determined was 9:1.  (That ratio has risen since 2004.)

Partisanship and ideology are much more closely related today than 50 years ago.  What Klein’s research suggests, therefore, is that putative political science majors at Stanford are likely to be subjected to leftist notions from their professors.  Other studies have found that college professors are more likely to indoctrinate their students today than a generation or two ago.  (College students are more likely than the typical American to say they’re liberal Democrats, but their views are not as uniformly leftist as Klein’s research suggests Stanford political science professors are.)

Once-upon-a-time, political science departments were lively places where students and faculty argued about public affairs.  (I was there.)  The tenor of the debate favored liberal sentiments, but one could also find unapologetic conservatives. 

Today, as Klein noted, the over-whelming tilt of political science departments to the left means conservatives are marginalized. Is it any wonder that many young people eschew any contact with politics?