The Disciplinary Pie

Inside Higher Education has a story about a new book on the history of disciplines within the 20th Century university. The main argument, according to the IHE summary, is that the rise of the social sciences is the primary reason that the humanities have lost their former primacy within the university.

As one of the commenters on the story notes, this is not all that startling an argument considering that the time frame covered by the book is most of the 20th Century, the period of time in which the social sciences came into existence as distinct disciplines. It’s not that startling that their share of the disciplinary pie should have increased in between the time period where they didn’t really exist and the time period in which they did.

Looking at the brief breakdown provided in the IHE story, the specific humanities that have become less predominant between 1915 and 1995 also are not especially surprising, with classics and philosophy being the biggest losers. I think we already knew about that.

I’m still interested enough to want to go look at the book itself, partly because I suspect from the brief summary that the authors are overlooking something important about their source material. The IHE story says that they used the Commonwealth Universities Yearbook, and concluded that the picture it provides is applicable to the rest of the world. I’m sure the book itself must discuss whether or not it is for the United States, but I really wonder if it can be for the postwar era, when the U.S. university began to diverge in quite a few ways from the international scene.

I also wonder a bit about the argument that the shift to the social science is about their practicality and about the more “democratic” character of 20th Century knowledge. At least some of this is also about the rise of national bureaucracies, because the social sciences are their handmaiden. That’s one reason I think they’re right that there’s no difference in disciplinary distribution between developing nations and the developed world, because the social sciences have the same structural place in relation to the state and interstate institutions wherever you go, whether or not there is a democratic or autocratic system, whether or not there is an open civil society.

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