I have often found it tricky to explain what exactly my major is to people outside Yale. “History and International Studies” sounds perfectly normal as a double major or as a combination of a major and a minor, but there’s a catch. It is neither: International Studies is a secondary major. I am not entirely sure what the word “secondary” means, though I do take pride in knowing there’s nothing secondary about the major’s requirements: application essays, 11 credits, plus a senior essay.
And that makes me wonder what good arguments put International Studies in its current awkward position. I am a pro-status-quo guy, so I tried to come up with reasons for why International Studies should be a primary major.
Our world, according to some, has become flat, or at least much flatter than it once was. A decent understanding of the economic, political, social, cultural and technological dimensions of international interactions is more important than ever. International Studies provides that, while integrating relevant academic realms.
I took a look at Yale’s official statements. “No student may major in International Studies by itself; it must be a second major,” proclaims the Blue Book, in an imperative tone and without further elaboration. The official International Studies Web site, despite detailing all the goodness of the major, also remains surprisingly discreet about the major’s uncomfortable secondary status.
Let me boldly speculate the reasons for keeping International Studies from primary status. First, some may argue that International Studies is little more than a colorful birthday balloon. It floats well, and it’s fun to engage, but it lacks a concrete, independent academic foundation that matches the standard of disciplined intellectual studies.
While this critique has elements of truth, it ignores the fact that an undergraduate education holds critical reasoning skills and intellectual acuteness to be as central as, if not more important than, the depth of any academic subject. It’s not International Studies majors’ mission to produce the next “On the Law of War and Peace,” but rather to provide for the students the language and concepts with which to explain, justify and criticize the integrated world, and the ability to weigh arguments and to sift material in the context of complex political and cultural settings. In the dangerous world in which we live (yes, I did learn this from my International Studies classes), these skills are highly relevant.
The other possible argument is that if a student is seriously interested in International Studies, she should simply become a political science major and follow the international relations track. Alas, I wish those who agree with such an argument would take professor Charles Hill’s Introduction to International Studies. I remember distinctively that he spent a full 20 minutes in the first lecture laying out the crucial differences between international relations and international studies.
While the military and economic wrestling of states — the heart of international relations — remains the main focus of analysis in international affairs, the emergence of nontraditional actors, from religious groups to terrorist organizations, has made the understanding of the broader environment as defined by culture, demography, geography and technology become increasing essential. International Studies exists to fill that void.
The secondary status of the International Studies major is far from an isolated problem. It reflects the reality of the emergence of an important but relatively new academic field, and the complicated integration of the new field with other existing subjects. But think about the recent creation of primary majors like Ethnicity, Race and Migration and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies, and we should be able to see the hopeful pattern. Just a few decades ago, those majors would have been considered unimaginable. Times have changed, and history constantly moves forward.
Establishing International Studies as a secondary major is a good step to catch up with the tide, but to stay ahead of everybody else, Yale, with the passion to lead in its blood, needs to make a bolder move.
Robert Li is a junior in Ezra Stiles College.