LARSON: Defending the social sciences

Nothing in Particular

In the midst of comparisons tying current University President Richard Levin to his successor, Provost Peter Salovey, one particular strand of continuity deserves our attention: each man earned his doctorate in a social science.

It’s a fitting sign of a much larger trend. Ten years ago, more undergraduates majored in the humanities than in any other branch of study, and the largest major at Yale was history. Now, history lags behind both economics and political science, barely edging out psychology. English has shrunk from over 100 majors to just over 60, and the social sciences, with 457 majors last year, now claim far more undergraduates than either the humanities or the sciences.

But while the makeup of the student body — and the person in Woodbridge Hall — signals an increased recognition of the role of social sciences in modern life, a large segment of the Yale community denigrates them as an academically inferior, largely contrived field of scholarship.

An odd mix of Burkian conservatives, humanities majors and old-school political philosophy devotees oppose the social sciences in their modern incarnation. They are, respectively, suspicious of attempts to analyze and reform societies; critical of a perceived lack of original thought and academic rigor; and frightened they have been supplanted by a more mathematical and data-driven discipline. As a social science major, I disagree.

Many students who spend their four years reading philosophy and literature feel simultaneously assaulted by and superior to their peers who choose paths perceived as having more of a “real-world” application.

So the English major tries to defend himself, saying that while the economics major may get a better job, he at least spent his college years thinking real thoughts. Social sciences can be easily ridiculed as reducing human interactions to simplified, quantitative models even as they fail to fulfill their predictive promises. Such critiques are compounded by the perceptions of several social science classes as “guts,” requiring no originality and not even that much work.

But social sciences are just as culpable in creating this perception. Many disciplines haven’t figured out how to tailor themselves to a large audience without losing their integrity; the absurd hoops professors teaching Intro Microeconomics hop through to avoid using any calculus make economics seem a little ridiculous to the hundreds of freshmen who take it each year. Moreover, there has been too much of a tendency towards making social science classes about current events, thus making the field seem preoccupied with answering questions that won’t be relevant in a few years. Readers of Milton can claim to have learned something more permanent than students of a particular country’s development issues during one decade.

Nonetheless, the social sciences are not themselves transitory. They change more rapidly than the Western canon, but no more rapidly than the schools of literary criticism that dominate much academic thought about literature. And while it’s true that economics or political science or psychology have frequently brought us to incorrect or incomplete conclusions, it’s also worth noting that all three are, in their modern form, relatively new fields. That in and of itself might make them suspect, until we remember that not that long ago, the only literature being studied in universities was written in Latin and Greek.

What we shouldn’t forget, though, is the vast wealth of knowledge these fields promise us as they become more mature. It’s true that no economist will ever be able to completely explain a large and dynamic economy, but economics tells us far more about the global economy than we could know about a much smaller economy 100 years ago. And outside of any practical utility — though of course, when we’re talking about the lives and livelihoods of billions of people, practical utility is important — the social sciences offer hundreds of new and exciting modes of intellectual inquiry that many of us just find interesting. How a game is played, or how a complex economy reaches equilibrium, can be fascinating questions. Reaching for the answers doesn’t render Hobbes less valuable, just as the science of gravity didn’t make Aristotle obsolete. Rather, such questions simply add to our ways of knowing a little bit more about an inscrutable world around us, and thousands of inscrutable worlds within us.

Harry Larson is a junior in Jonathan Edwards College. His column runs on Fridays. Contact him at harry.larson@yale.edu .

Comments