American Liberal Arts Blog

Teaching the Liberal Arts in the American Context
Disciplinary Boundaries and the Study of America: A Problem and Proposal
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.

Tags: Education

Anonymous on Jun 30, 2009 at 3:22 pm


You raise some interesting points. There are two points to make here.

First, as scholars we work to master a discipline. Beginning in graduate school, we read copious amounts of secondary material and learn the methods of our chosen discipline. Graduate school training inculcates in the scholar a certain respect for the rigor and methodological assumptions of one’s discipline. Hopefully, the graduate student will demonstrate this in a successful dissertation. But such training has certain limits. As you have suggested, this way of reading forces us into a certain intellectual ghetto. Thus, when a political scientist reads the Federalist Papers, he has different questions and assumptions than the philosopher or the historian approaching the same text. I am not certain this is a bad thing.

Second, when scholars try to talk across disciplines there is usually some tension. Perhaps some of it is a “turf war.” You historians cannot talk about The Federalist Papers; it is my [political science] text! But I think that some of the difficulty is simply intellectual myopia. As scholars, we find it difficult to leave our training at the door (or question our own assumptions and methodologies). But as scholars we do have some things in common – texts and sources. A healthy conversation can take place across disciplines as long as the parties focus on the texts or sources. I believe that it is also helpful to discuss methodologies at the outset of a serious discussion. What am I bringing to the text? How will I deal with historical context? How will I deal with the literary form of the text? How one answers these questions will often shape interdisciplinary discussions.

These points should also force us to think of the classroom. In most classes, particularly in survey history courses, my students encompass a diverse number of majors. The students look at the world in various ways. They may know little or nothing about the topics we cover. I find it helpful in my classes at the beginning of the semester to cover the ways in which a historian approaches a primary source (or secondary source) before discussing one. This allows the class, at least in theory, to begin with a common understanding of the goal ahead.

John Hardin on Jun 30, 2009 at 5:47 pm

I too was struck by this issue at the summer institute this year. Discussions and lectures were difficult to follow at times because not only do we think differently about subjects, but we also depend on different canons of "sacred" texts. Unfortunately, I do not have much in the way of solutions to offer. However, I wondered if any introductions to different fields of study exist, and might be helpful in bridging the gaps.

I, myself, made a large discipline leap from engineering to history, and could have used some sort of guide to better understand how historians think, before I dressed up in their pantaloons and tried to be one. In fact, I am still not sure about how historians think. I am either busy masquerading or just lack a great deal of self-awareness.

I know that ISI publishes introductions to different disciplines, and I hope to acquire some of them soon. Does anyone know any works that compare the thought/examination/interpretation processes behind different fields of study? Also, I would like to identify and better familiarize myself with some of the key texts for other disciplines such as philosophy, political thought, and economics. (Isn't that what we all need, a little more reading on our plates?) Any recommendations on discipline canons?

Hopefully, through such efforts, I can better appreciate what separates us and overcome a few of the trenches. As Adam noted, it could also be very helpful in teaching undergrads that represent a broad range of fields and methods.