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Department Disciplines Criticized by Sociologist

By Nathan Glazer

(The following article is reprinted from the January issue of CURRENT, a digest periodical. The article appeared first in HARPER'S, under the title "The Wasted Classroom." Mr. Glazer was a co-author of The Lonely Crowd.)

The departments of knowledge have a long and honorable history. To be a member of a department means that a man owes his loyalty to his field of knowledge as well as to his university. Indeed, the department, or rather the discipline (which is expressed in the form of the department in each college or university), is more important to him generally than the school in which he happens to teach. He may shift schools but scarcely ever will be able to shift departments. His advancement, within his college or from a job in one college or from a job in one college to another, will depend not on his virtues as a teacher (who is to judge that?) but on his standing in his discipline, and this standing is measured by a) his doctoral degree (granted by a group of people who have such degrees in the same discipline); b) his publications (in the journals of his discipline); and c) his research grants (given by persons drawn from his discipline). And of course he has been trained in that discipline, in a graduate school.

What this means is that it is much easier for a man to think of himself as a psychologist, a historian, a sociologist, a classicist, a specialist in Elizabethan drama than as someone who is engaged in liberal education. And he is more concerned in communicating his discipline to the students than in educating them. Obviously this is a large and general charge and there are exceptions. But since it is the discipline that has prestige, the professor is oriented generally to what is most characteristic of the discipline. This means the newest thinking in his specialty, the most abstract concepts, the things about which scholars do research and publish papers. In psychology, for example, he would think he was engaged in the worst kind of sellout if he paid attention to the psychological problems that concern the students rather than to those that concern psychologists.

In effect, the making of scholars in the graduate schools, while it does produce some good scholars, certainly makes many poor teachers. But there are more pernicious effects of the system of departments than the role of the discipline itself. There is first of all the competition among the departments, for status, for students, for prestige. This means constant bickering over how many courses a student must be required to take in this or in that subject. Central concern of such arguments, unfortunately, is not what the student needs for a good education (though certainly such a motivation does play a role), but the interests of the department: Can we require fewer courses in our department than others require in their departments? Can we accept the fact that our discipline plays a less essential role in education than others?

Another Danger

Departmentalization thus means that liberal education is hurt in another and crucial way--educational programs that cannot be fitted into the departmental scheme are shortchanged. Everyone knows that sociology, anthropology, social psychology, political science, and history today deal in large part with a common subject matter. But joint courses in this general field must usually be conducted by people whose primary loyalty is to their discipline. Indeed, it is almost impossible to find distinguished people who are ready to devote themselves to interdepartmental courses in the social sciences. Professor Lewis Feuer, who conducts such a joint course in the social sciences at the Univ. of California in Berkeley, is able to transcend these silly battles between disciplinary representatives, in part because he is a philosopher; Professor David Riesman, who gives a general course in the social sciences at Harvard, is able to transcend them in part because he has been formally trained in none of the competing disciplines. (He is a lawyer who trained himself in them.) But even when one finds such rare individuals to take over the so-called interdisciplinary courses, they are hampered in finding assistants and associates.

The predictable result of department-alixation--and I have not even begun to analyze the reasons for the strength of the departments--has been that the great experiments in liberal education of the Twenties and Thirties have been grinding to a close.

What Has Happened

Let us see what has happened. For many years the University of Chicago gave perhaps the best undergraduate education in the United States. Departments were entirely abolished in the College and all students were required to take broad courses in the Social Sciences (sociology, anthropology, political science, economics, etc.); the Natural Sciences (physics, biology, geology, astronomy, etc.); as well as Mathematics. Much of the instruction took place in seminars. It emphasized the intensive reading of original texts (not textbooks), and some of the most distinguished scholars in the University were willing to conduct small classes in the College. The admirable premise here was that the college-educated citizen should be exposed to important ideas and methods in the major fields of knowledge, whatever his ultimate choice of specialty, within the university or without. But now the College is succumbing to the power of research-oriented departments, and it is becoming more traditional in its approach.

Similarly, the Contemporary Civiliza-famous attempt at interdepartmental edtion Course of Columbia College--another General Education courses have failed year. And Harvard's once ambitious General Education courses have failed to challenge the domination of its departments.

Indeed as one looks over the American college scene, it becomes clear that American education has never been more conservative than it is today. Why is this so? It is not because the experiments in changing the undergraduate program have failed. It cannot be said that the students at Antioch, Bennington and Sarah Lawrence are worse ed-

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