By Anonymous, June 29, 2009 in Uncategorized
With the avowed purpose of revitalizing the teaching of America's founding principles, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute's Lehrman Studies Center has brought an interdisciplinary group of scholars to Princeton University to discuss the principles of the American founding. The conversations have been informative, insightful, and extended outside of the seminars and workshops to dinner and beyond. There is, from my perspective at least, a concern. My concern is best formulated in terms of the following question: Why is it that I often feel that the participants are talking past one another? Or, to put it more succinctly, why is it that I as a political theorist have difficulty recognizing the importance of a factual point made by a historian or an abstract connection provided by a philosopher?
Having been thinking of these questions for the past couple of days, I have come to the conclusion that our graduate training is, in part, to blame for this. The avowed purpose of graduate school is to educate and train specialists in a particular academic field. Not only does this seem to be inconsistent with the principles of a liberal arts education, it means that each of us has been socialized into the norms and standards of a particular academic discipline. The problem stemming from this is that those trained in one discipline are not familiar with the norms and standards of other disciplines. Thus, while I am familiar with scholarship published by historians, for example, I am not at all familiar with how a historian thinks. By this I mean how a historian approaches a text, why they ask the questions they do, and why they look for the evidence they do. All too often I am left puzzled as to what something means or why it matters because I think about things differently than others because of my training.
To the extent that the narrowness of our graduate training is a source of talking past one another, one is left with a more important question: How is one to understand the principles of the American regime if our graduate training is inconsistent with the liberal arts education requisite for this understanding? Simply reading scholarship on America is not an inadequate answer as this fails to provide answers to the more fundamental questions identified in the previous paragraph. While reforming graduate education in America with an eye to the liberal arts is unrealistic, one is left to consider the questions of what it is groups like the Lehrman Center can do to supplement graduate education in America with an eye to educating us about the differences between specific disciplines.
A tentative answer, or really a suggestion, is something like the following. Following the model provided by the Summer Institute, bring a diverse group of scholars together for a week or two weeks. Where I would diverge from the existing model would be in the following way. I would have one common reading for the morning sessions and then have a scholar from a different academic discipline take participants through the document (I would have the break out groups led by figures in the same field as well). Faculty put in charge of the session could then assign additional materials that they, as a representative of their discipline, feel help us arrive at a better understanding of the common reading. The presence of a common reading would allow us to see in a clearer way how people with different training think about the same text. This should not only provide participants with a better understanding of the various academic disciplines represented, but a better appreciation of what each of us has to offer the study of American ideals. Not only should this make us more informed, but this understanding should translate into more nuanced and sensitive scholarship that speaks to the fundamental questions of America and the human condition.