The War of the Generations

Here’s the headline of the day from our friends over at Via Meadia.

Illinois’s Blue Robin Hoods Stealing from the Young to Give to the Old

The topic is the pension crisis, specifically in Illinois, where the legislature has decided to cut spending on education by $400 million — for the third year in a row. All to pay back money owed to the states horribly underfunded pension plan.

Sticking it to either group, the young or the old, isn’t appealing, but the boomers are politically organized and better positioned to fight for their interests, particularly because powerful unions are on their side. The young, by contrast, are among the least politically active groups in the country, making them much easier for politicians to ignore. Illinois has obviously chosen the path of least resistance.

Check it out.

Teaching, Time, & the Research University

My post on the proposed cuts to political science funding has drawn many comments. The political science community has mobilized strongly, sending out emails emphasizing the fact that Congressman Flake’s cuts do not actually cut any money from the NSF budget, but just  from political science, thus in effect redirecting it to other disciplines. Steven Mazie also makes this worthy point. As questionable as political science research is, I have no doubt that political scientists have not cornered the market on irrelevant research.

But such arguments beg the real question, of whether we need federal funding of social science research as it is currently practiced.  The social scientists—fearful of being cut off from the sustaining stream of federal funds—are rallying their troops. I have in the last two days received numerous appeals from the American Political Science Association and related groups asking me to write my senators trying to kill these proposed cuts. In the appeals, I am directed to a new virtual edition of the American Journal of Political Science, which features a selection of supposedly exemplary articles produced with NSF funds. I did visit the virtual journal and there found the following:

Self-Organizing Policy Networks: Risk, Partner Selection, and Cooperation in Estuaries. This study looks explicitly at networks involving policy makers dealing with coastal estuaries. [It finds] that in riskier settings (where the resource is the most fragile) highly connected networks spring up and these are important for preventing further resource decline.

Not by Twins Alone: Using the Extended Family Design to Investigate Genetic Influence on Political Beliefs. This is one of an increasing number of studies providing evidence for a strong genetic component to political attitudes. The point to the research is not that politics is purely genetic – but that individuals are born with personality traits that carry with them through their life. These are related to political attitudes.

Inequality and the Dynamics of Public Opinion: The Self-Reinforcing Link Between Economic Inequality and Mass Preferences. This research looks at the threat that rising income inequality has for democracy. The findings call into question the idea that changes in inequality result in a shift in mass opinion toward more liberal ideas. Indeed the research indicates that increases in inequality shifts mass public opinion in a more conservative direction.

My colleague and friend of the Arendt Center, Walter Russell Mead, had these wise words to say on his excellent blog:

There is a real baby and bathwater problem here. While much academic research is so worthless that not even other academics in the same field bother to read it, some of this research represents high triumphs of the human spirit, opens the door to new medical treatments, or otherwise deepens our understanding of the world around us and increases our ability to live richer, better lives.

The reconstruction of the American university is going to take some time, and nobody knows now exactly how the new system should look. In general, Via Meadia thinks that the “research model” works less well in the humanities and in most social sciences than it does in the natural sciences. In many cases, undergraduate teaching could be separated from scholarly research with no loss to the quality of undergraduate education — and perhaps a substantial gain.

In any case, we think Congressman Flake’s proposals deserve a fair and careful hearing. The policy usefulness of most political science research is at best questionable; at a time of tight government budgets it makes sense to look hard at non-essentials.

There is a real need to rethink the point of academic research in the university system. Every academic knows that the vast majority of published material is not worth publication. We also know that so much is published and almost none of it is read by more than a very few friends and colleagues. Whether that research is nonetheless valuable as a contribution to the storehouse of knowledge and the slowly evolving advance of science is a good question. But the short answer is that most of it is not.

Mead raises an important question about whether humanities and social science professors need to be part of the research model of modern academic institutions. On the one hand, it does seem strange to think of humanities professors as “researchers.” It fits us into the scientific model and suggests that thinking is somehow the product of research, which is a deeply questionable presumption. More likely, research deadens thinking, as it normalizes and limits it.

What thinking does need is time, and that is the challenge that humanities scholars are confronted with today. The demands of teaching and researching and publishing, let alone administering, are such that few academics today have time to read and think. We must insist on a distinction between the time to think and the need to publish.

Of course, one might argue that reading and thinking are what happen in teaching. If we simply teach great books we can read and re-read them, allowing us time to think, inspired by the masters of the past and also the present. That is certainly my approach to teaching, which is why I have always found teaching to be an integral part of my intellectual and writing life. My best papers and articles are the products of classroom insights. Might it be, then, that the research model is the enemy of thinking in the humanities?

That is, of course, too simple a conclusion. Thinking and teaching go together, although teaching hundreds of students and grading thousands of papers every semester is not really teaching, just as writing paper after paper is not really thinking. Teaching requires time, as does thinking. Both time to think and time to talk with students, to engage with them, and inspire them. And to be inspired by them. There is less and less time to do that in our research universities, and even in some of our liberal arts colleges that insist on mimicking the research university model. The model needs to be rethought. We should not run away from that opportunity.