Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Academia and Western Studies

Posted on Left2Right Selling the Curriculum 2/2/2005.

I think there is a significant difference between outsiders' attitude toward academia, and academia's attitude toward itself. This difference has showed up in several threads here--notably [not teaching english] and [affirmative action]. Academia's view of itself tends to be aristocratic; it exists to study interesting problems and should be allowed to do so with no outside accountability (only internal accountability via peer review and the like). Outsiders' view of academia is that it exists to be useful, and to the extent that we give it money, we expect something useful in return. There are several ideas of the goals toward which it is useful, but the most common two are the following: to train and enable people to take on certain roles in society and to provide a better understanding of certain practical questions. This difference in approach shows up, for example, in Pedro's comments on What’s Up at the Universities. "You may very well argue that English scholars are no longer focusing on teaching a sort of cultural canon to 'civilize' undergraduates…. The fact that they are no longer just doing that…is a good sign. It is a sign that they are asking interesting questions about culture and canons." That is an academic's statement; a non-academic will often conclude that however Shakespeare became important, being thoroughly familiar with his plays is useful, so academia should ensure that people are thoroughly familiar with them. This same difference of opinion shows up in discussing this topic.
I'm writing as an outsider, so maybe I'm missing something obvious. Why should there be a difference in funding models between the sciences and the humanities? Both are good in themselves, but are also considered to benefit society; thus, the funding is directed (both by legislatures and by donors) to areas where they consider it to be most likely to be valuable. Thus, a corporation may fund a study of subject X in science, because it thinks X would be particularly worth understanding better; clearly, that infringes on the faculty's control of the curriculum to some extent (they can't take the funding and study Y, which might be just as interesting and potentially useful), but it is commonly accepted. Why is this same direction via funding inappropriate in the humanities?
I believe the “vague and sprawling” criticism of the "Western Studies" curriculum that you make is applicable to many (not all) * Studies programs; they tend to be politically motivated, and not really a reasonable division of study. I remember hearing Al Young make this criticism of Black Studies. "You can study the theology of the Black church; you can study the history of the Black Codes; you can study the sociology of the Black communities in the northern industrial studies; but there is no body of knowledge or consistent approach that would coherently constitute 'Black Studies'". But to the extent that * Studies programs are justified, they seem to be as justified for Western Studies as for any other area studies.