Rattling the Primates at the Monkey Cage

I’ve been wanting for a very long time to say something about the Monkey Cage, one of the specialized blogs (along with the Volokh Conspiracy) that the Washington Post has shrewdly embraced. Whereas the Volokh Conspiracy is a libertarian-leaning legal blog, the Monkey Cage is populated by academic political scientists. I haven’t seen an explanation for the name behind the blog (correction: a sidebar cites H.L. Mencken: “Democracy is the art of running the circus from the monkey cage”). The inaugural post back in 2007 only refers to a broad interdisciplinary purpose of bringing specialized social science research out of the journals and into the media, which seems a worthy endeavor. Its interdisciplinary scope is entirely worthwhile, since political science, broadly conceived, overlaps with sociology, social psychology, history, and economics.

On the other hand, from certain points of view the name of the blog is both outmoded but still somehow fitting. It harkens back to the time, a couple generations ago, when political science was dominated by the behavioral revolution—seeing humans as little more than “trousered apes”—with eminent figures in the field such as David Easton confidently predicting that behaviorism would yield up “truly universal propositions,” that is, a political science as predictive and practical as Newtonian physics. That kind of behaviorism has largely disappeared from political science (to be replaced by an emphasis on regression model-building), though it is making a comeback in other fields, especially neuroscience and behavioral economics. In this sense the Monkey Cage might seem an obsolete title for political science.

Yet the name might still be fitting if it refers somehow to the phenomenon of caged primates engaging in one of their favorite pastimes: flinging poo at fellow primates. Because Henry Farrell of George Washington University, writing at the Monkey Cage last week, takes great exception to my recent Weekly Standard article, “Is Political Science Dying?”, criticizing recent trends in academic political science. So let me fling some poo back.

Prof. Farrell’s headline suggests that my article is “fact free,” though it deals with a rather significant fact that Farrell does not dispute: that Stanford’s political science department, by its own reporting, has seen a precipitous drop in the number of majors over the last few years, and is scrambling to make the major more attractive to Stanford students by emphasizing a track in “justice and law.” This might be a step in the right direction, though there are good reasons to be skeptical.

Prof. Farrell goes on to suggest my article is “inept” for not offering more social science data in service of its general thesis that the old-fashioned kind of political science was better than what is on offer at many universities today (which thesis he later admits in the article might be correct!), and his chief piece of factual evidence to dispute my article is this chart:

Social Science Majors

See look: nothing to it! Move along! It seems to me that this chart reinforces my argument and suggests that Prof. Farrell is whistling past the graveyard: while showing that the number of political science majors overall (and social science majors generally) is up slightly from peaks 40 years ago and 25 years ago, as a proportion of the total number of students in higher education (not shown on this chart) the share of political science majors has clearly declined. Since 1990 the number of undergraduates has grown by over 40 percent; if political science majors had kept its share from its previous peak around 1990, there should be well over 55,000 majors today, rather than the roughly 40,000 the chart shows. I’d hardly call that “holding steady at a high plateau.” This is relative decline in action. (I’d be curious, by the way, to hear Prof. Farrell’s explanation for the sharp spike and subsequent decline in social science majors in the 1960s and 1970s—were these all draft deferment majors? Part of my argument was that today’s socially conscious students don’t seem to be flocking to traditional social sciences as they did in the 1960s, but head instead to the politicized “studies” departments, which didn’t exist in the 1960s. Some day I’m going to get around to a proposed article with the title “Two Cheers for Ward Churchill” to explain why I think this is happening, though the reason was suggested briefly in my Standard article.) Overall it is well known that the number of majors in the humanities and social sciences has fallen from about 25 percent of all undergraduates in 1970 to the high single digits today.

Moreover, Farrell nowhere tries to explain the variance that can be observed in the data, which is that political science thrives with students at some universities, but flags at others. I thought explaining data variances like this was something social science data mavens thought central to their enterprise. Why are some programs thriving, and others not? Can that variance be explained by quantitative analysis?

But the ironic part of Prof. Farrell’s article is the number of incorrect assertions he makes about my argument with no facts or data at all. Consider this paragraph:

Unfortunately, these personal impressions and conversations are likely to be biased (in the statistical, not the pejorative sense). Hayward is a self-avowed conservative skeptic of political science, teaching at a university with a marked conservative identity. The undergraduates whom he comes into contact with, and who talk to him about political science, are not a random sample of American undergraduates. Instead, they’re more likely than the average to come to Pepperdine because they’re committed to an understanding of politics that has social values at its center. Similarly, his friends in the academy are no more likely than my academic friends to be an unbiased sample.

First of all, I teach at the graduate school, so I don’t come into much contact with undergraduates (fairly easy to find out—oops). Second, he says Pepperdine is a school “with a marked conservative identity.” Where is his data for this, I wonder? Because the undergraduate political science department at Pepperdine (very conventional overall, but featuring a self-described anarchist in its midst—Hillsdale it’s definitely not) would certainly dispute that characterization. While Pepperdine takes its faith mission seriously, its reputation as a politically conservative undergraduate college is largely mistaken. Who’s dealing in stereotypes and biases now, Prof. Farrell? Third, many of my thoughts and observations about this issue took shape in my mind not around supposedly like-minded colleagues at Pepperdine, but during my year embedded in the political science department at the University of Colorado at Boulder—a department that I liked and think well of though it is mostly liberal, but where the number of undergraduate majors has shrunk by more than a quarter over the last 10 years even as the total student body has increased slightly. The department fears it may lose faculty positions with future retirements because of this trend.

Farrell complains there’s no data behind one statement he especially dislikes: “He says that he’s ‘lost track’ of how many undergraduate students have complained to him that ‘political science is so boring!’” My “data set” for this remark is not undergraduates as Farrell supposed, but the incoming graduate students I have met each year in the professional degree program (a crucial variable I think) in public policy where I currently teach. They come from universities of all sizes and makes all over the country, and abroad. Only about 10 percent were political science majors as undergraduates; most are from other fields: history, psychology, sciences, even English literature—a fact which I find curious. So I ask students why they have enrolled in a professional degree program in public policy, why they weren’t political science majors, and why they didn’t choose a graduate program in political science instead. It is this cohort of students (only half of whom, at most, are conservative—we have lots of liberal students in the program, contrary to Farrell’s fact-free assumption) that tends to say their undergraduate political science offerings were uninspiring. Why and how would a public policy degree be different, is my next question? How does public policy differ from political science? Because, most say, it is more practical, which seems sensible. (I typically describe public policy as applied political science. . .) But of course old fashioned political science, such as by that fellow named Aristotle, was intended to be eminently practical. And of the minority who were political science majors, I find many are unacquainted with, for example, the Federalist Papers, or basic constitutional principles such as the separation of powers, etc. (The APSA held a hand-wringing panel two years ago about the decline of old-fashioned teaching about the Constitution in most political science programs.)

Farrell seems to think that my argument is somehow partisan in nature, though I explicitly mention in my Standard article that ideology is not the central problem. Nor is my argument new. It has been raging in various forms for 60 years at least. I wonder what he’d make of this provocative question from Robert F. Kennedy to Mac Bundy way back in 1963:

“I majored in Government at Harvard and never learned anything which helped me in practical political situations or in overseas travel thereafter. How can universities answer this problem?”

As this old anecdote suggests, you don’t have to be a conservative to be disaffected with what is on offer from many political science curricula. For a more extensive example, just look up the “perestroika” movement in political science that makes many of the same arguments I do, but chiefly from the Left.

Finally, as it happens I’m working episodically on a review of the entire corpus of the American Political Science Review, which turns 110 years old next year, for what such a sweeping look can reveal about the changes in political science over a century. There are many interesting things that will come out of this review that I hope to publish somewhere, but for now let me look back to the 1951 APSA presidential address of Peter Odegard of UC Berkeley, who noted with some bemusement that the very first textbook in political science is said to have been from Columbia University professor John Daniel Gros in the 1790s, and bore the charming title Natural Principles of Rectitude, for the Conduct of Man in All States and Situations in Life, Demonstrated and Explained in a Systematic Treatise on Moral Philosophy: Comprehending the Law of Nature—Ethics—Natural Jurisprudence—General Economy—Politics—and the Law of Nations. (And you thought book subtitles today were running long.)

Prof. Odegard commented:

We rightly smile at the presumption and naivete of anyone who would undertake to explore an area so vast and so complex—and to do so without benefit of a special Institute or Bureau, staffed with research assistants, secretaries, technical assistants, and IBM machines. Yet there is a lesson for us in the cosmic cogitations of Daniel Gros. He had as his central purpose the instruction of his students in those principles of morality and rectitude by which they could “become good men and good citizens.” Obviously we could use more of this type of instruction today. Gros knew that ethics, jurisprudence, economics, politics and international relations were not independent and unrelated disciplines but simply convenient frames of reference for inquiring into the “natural principles of rectitude for the conduct of man.”

If one is to argue that such training is a poor preparation for practical politics, at least he must admit that it did not seriously handicap Jefferson and Madison, Hamilton and other practical politicians, who became the architects of democratic government in the modern world. Indeed, one may well ask whether the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, or the Federalist Papers could have been written except by men trained in this way. We might well ask ourselves also where in America we are today preparing the Jeffersons, the James Wilsons, the James Madisons or Alexander Hamiltons that our world so sorely needs?

Maybe Prof. Farrell will consent to debate the question with me at the next annual meeting of the American Political Science Association?