Combating Social Scientific Illiteracy | Higher Ed Gamma


The chief kind of illiteracy faced today isn’t the inability to read and write. It’s more insidious. It’s mathematical and statistical, financial, geographic, historical, psychological, cultural, sociological and scientific. It’s innumeracy, ahistoricism, ethnocentrism and essentialism and other forms of conceptual, analytical and cognitive distortion.

As a thought experiment, what if we were to reconceive of one of the purposes of a lower-division education in the social sciences as an effort to combat various kinds of unsophisticated, naïve, simplistic thinking that applied to public policy and personal decision making? What if one of our learning objectives was to expose undergraduates to the kinds of errors in cognition, reasoning and logic that occur widely but often subconsciously—or worse yet, are used to manipulate and exploit?

Social scientific illiteracy, I am convinced, is as malign as scientific and cultural illiteracy. Yet apart from requiring students to take a class or two in a social science discipline, our institutions tend not to think of the disparate social science courses as efforts to introduce students to the errors in thinking that grow out of social scientific ignorance and the inability to apply core social science concepts, methods and analytical techniques systematically.

It’s one thing to accept certain scientific findings largely as an act of faith. After all, very few highly educated adults are truly able to grasp the foundations of contemporary scientific thought about cosmology or quantum mechanics, let alone astrophysics, molecular or computational biology, or neuroscience.

Yet social scientific thinking does not require acts of faith. Undergraduates, irrespective of major, are fully capable of replicating key psychological experiments; conducting data analysis; undertaking anthropological, economic, geographical, historical and sociological research; and testing and applying concepts drawn from political science, sociology and related fields. All are able to understand causation and correlation and sampling and selection.

This isn’t to imply that the social sciences are easier than the natural or physical sciences, but rather that social science methods and modes of interpretation are more accessible.

To this, you might well say, isn’t that what lower-division social science classes already do? In a few cases, the answer is certainly yes—though even then, there’s an unhealthy tendency to fragment social science knowledge and skills by discipline instead of addressing key topics more holistically.

Here, I’d simply like to suggest that rather than relying as heavily as we currently do upon introductory courses in specific social science disciplines, we consider offering one or more broader courses that teach students how to research, think, analyze and apply findings like a social scientist.

Such a course would introduce lower-division undergraduates to the basics of:

  • Social science research methods. An introduction to the methods that social scientists use to collect, evaluate and analyze qualitative and quantitative data, including archival research, comparative research, ethnographic research, experimental research, participant observation and survey research.
  • Social science theory. An introduction to the interpretative frameworks that social scientists use to understand observed facts and behavior and other social phenomena.
  • Data literacy. An introduction to the tools and techniques that social scientists use to transform data into useful information.
  • The application of social science insights to public policy and everyday life. How social scientific data, findings and theories are used (or misused) in policy formulation, clinical, educational and therapeutic interventions, and personal life.

Since academics are trained in specific fields, the idea of teaching a more synthetic approach to the social sciences strikes many as repugnant, as superficial, artificial and unsophisticated. As disciplinary specialists, most only feel comfortable teaching within specific disciplines and fear that they can’t do justice to the breadth and depth of related areas of study.

Point well taken.

But I suspect that much of the reluctance grows out of the bad name that the more holistic approach practiced in K-12 social studies has offered. Too often, I fear, those K-12 courses devolve into bull sessions about current events or a superficial mishmash of subjects that require deeper levels of understanding.

However, as fewer and fewer students major in the social sciences, we need to ensure that undergraduates who concentrate in business, communication, computer science, engineering, mathematics and the natural sciences acquire a familiarity with social science methods, theories and applications.

A more broad-based approach to lower-division social sciences education might offer a side benefit: convincing more students to major in one of the social science disciplines.

Let me offer a quick history lesson.

In 1961, Columbia “suspended” one of its defining core curriculum courses, CC-B, the sequel to CC-A, the university’s still-existing survey of Western moral and political philosophy and theology from Plato to the early 20th century, focused on the pressing problems of the present through the lens of relatively recent works of social theory, economics, ethics, philosophy and contemporary theology.

Unlike CC-A, whose syllabus changed exceedingly slowly and incrementally, CC-B’s syllabus was much more dynamic, focusing on economic issues during the Great Depression of the 1930s, anthropological and sociological perspectives in the 1940s and early 1950s, and works of morality and philosophy by such figures as Jean-Paul Sartre, Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich during the mid- and late 1950s and early 1960s. CC-B was also emphatically presentist, not that it uncritically adhered to present-day values and attitudes, but in addressing contemporary controversies through the lens of recent works that spoke profoundly to the underlying issues of the day.

No doubt, no single course could hope to address the complex social issues of our time, whether these involve privilege, inequality, globalization, (post)-colonialism, bioethics, the environment or emerging technologies and automation.

Certainly, something is lost when we confront texts without the scaffolding offered by a particular discipline, which brings its own methodology, vocabulary, subject matter and agenda.

But something is also gained by such an approach. Such a course is interdisciplinary by design. Instructors become active participants in the learning process, rather than simply serving as subject-matter specialists. Above all, the skills most prized by the liberal arts—critical inquiry, research, analysis and interpretation and theorizing—become central to the learning experience.

The demise of CC-B reflected the triumph of disciplinary-based thinking within the academy. Although Columbia encouraged departments to develop courses that exploit cross-disciplinary connections and explored links between the discipline’s foundations and contemporary issues, most departments simply offered general introductions to their particular field.

The result: students inadvertently received the message that no works in philosophy, social science, ethics or theology published in the last 75 years deserve the same kind of searching analysis as do the great books of the more distant past. Columbia students also were implicitly told that that the issues that preoccupy thinkers today—involving the nature of power, stratification and inequality, and ethnic, gender and national conflict—do not merit the concerted focus that the current core places on the gradual rise of liberalism and its critics and adversaries.

Worse yet, most students received no serious introduction to the range of methods, vocabulary or schools of interpretation that define the social sciences as a whole.

The kind of course that I envision would not simply be an updated version of Columbia’s CC-B, though it should certainly address one or more of the defining issues and controversies of the present through the combined lenses and methods of the social sciences and the newer fields and programs that now share center stage with the older disciplines of anthropology, economics, geography, history, psychology and sociology: women’s studies, gender and sexuality studies, critical ethnic and race studies, among others.

Such a course should also introduce students to social science research methods, since only then can they properly understand the challenges, limitations and complexities of gathering and analyzing data.

I recently read several fascinating, if highly controversial, critiques of social science research that has had a powerful impact on policy makers. One questions a recent study that found that children who enrolled in a Tennessee prekindergarten program in 2009 and 2010 had worse test scores and behavioral outcomes as sixth graders than children who didn’t. Another scrutinizes the research that purports to show that ethnic studies courses “boost student achievement over the long run—especially among students of color.”

In a democracy, social science literacy isn’t an extravagance. Informed and responsible citizenship requires all of us to be able to attain a level of civic, economic, historical and sociological understanding that allows us to critically evaluate the research and theories that undergird policy decisions.

Then, on a more personal level, economic, psychological and sociological insight is essential if we are to achieve greater self-understanding, fathom why people act as we do, better manage our behavior and emotions, and make more informed decisions.

All of us need to think like a social scientist, replacing naïve, everyday thinking with a more social scientific approach. Distribution requirements are not enough. We need to think historically, spatially, computationally and cross-culturally. We need to think like an economist, a political scientist, a psychologist and a sociologist.

If that’s indeed the case, then we must think harder about how to ensure that all of our graduates achieve a viable level of social science literacy and achieve an acceptable degree of methodological, theoretical and analytical sophistication.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.


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