Opinions: Academia Should Question Its Foundations

The social sciences are rarely interested in investigating their foundations. By accepting the initial assumptions and standard methodologies that make up these foundations, academics are able to undertake the “real work” of, say, forecasting economic growth, explaining voter turnout or measuring national religious participation. There is always a danger that a lack of self-criticism might lead to the exclusion of real insights from “unorthodox” areas, merely because of foundational disagreements. The nature of the modern university reinforces this trend toward dogmatism, with its rigorous separation of professional “disciplines.” The social sciences at Truman State University should more fully embrace challenges to their foundations, understanding them as enriching contributions, rather than deviations or distractions. This means engaging with perspectives that conflict with their initial assumptions — in the hopes that these might supply useful knowledge about the world and how to change it.

The present state of the social sciences can only be explained by reference to the university’s specific context and history as institution. The university we are familiar with is the capitalist university. The modern university emerged in the late nineteenth century, according to sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein. At the time, prevailing liberal ideology promoted a separation between the basic elements of European capitalist countries — the market, the state and civil society. Disciplines were organized to study these elements, respectively, as economics, political science and sociology. Over the twentieth century, with more of the middle class gaining access to education, the university became further commodified. For example, studying economics in the modern university is largely about acquiring skills for a career in business or finance. Today, with declining public budgets, universities are increasingly forced to compete for students and corporate financing. With each stage of the university’s evolution, education has been subordinated to capitalist imperatives — chiefly, to provide graduates with marketable skills.

The foundations of the social sciences reflect this. The starting point of economics is the single individual and assumes that she maximizes her utility or preference level based on price signals. Markets tend to balance out — supply tends to meet demand — and crises are exceptional to the norm. These assumptions properly belong to the neoclassical tradition of economics, but this is so widely accepted at the university that the neoclassical model is often the only one taught to undergraduates. Modern political science, borrowing from economics, uses the rational individual as its basic unit of analysis. Concerned with making existing political institutions more efficient, it busies itself with analyzing the forms and properties these institutions assume. Both disciplines focus their attention on distinct objects — the economy and politics. Coincidentally, they both also presuppose these objects are stable and natural. Political science upholds political order and economics extols the virtues of the market. The social sciences as they are reinforce and reproduce capitalist society. Can they supply the tools for its critique?

Thankfully, alternative intellectual traditions already exist that do offer these tools. They are less concerned with disciplinary boundaries and involve themselves in seeking knowledge about the world in order to change it. One of these traditions is Marxism. Against dominant economic orthodoxy, it concerns itself with the social relations among people, principally in the form of class relationships. Capitalist society is founded on the exploitation of the working class. Workers produce more value than they are paid for, and the surplus accrues to capitalists. Marxism, against the orientation of the modern social sciences, argues the unnaturalness of our society and exposes its crisis-ridden and exploitative reality. Similarly, radical feminist traditions denaturalize our society by revealing the violence of patriarchy. Radical feminists, in contrast to liberal feminists, believe that society must be fundamentally changed in order to abolish oppression and thus reject a legislation-based approach. Theorists like Silvia Federici demonstrate how women’s uncompensated house- and carework is vital to the functioning of capitalist society.

Marxism, however, is mostly excluded from the social sciences. Radical feminism has suffered the same fate. Both reject the primacy of the “rational individual” that is especially central to the foundations of economics and political science. They instead deal in terms of fundamental social relations, articulated as “class” and “gender.” They utilize concepts like “exploitation” and “oppression” to expose conflict as an essential part of our social existence. They also reject the parceling of the social world into components like the economy, politics and civil society — divisions created by and for the market. However, this holistic approach is in many ways more representative of our lived experiences than the social scientific one. We do encounter exploitation and oppression. The social sciences have historically evolved to meet the needs of capitalist society, and in so doing naturalize that society. And, despite the services it provides to the existing social order, the university has been placed under ever-intensifying siege. A review of priorities is in order.

Truman’s Vision Statement promotes an “empathetic understanding of human experiences” and commits the University to “developing educated citizens needed to protect our democracy.” These practical, progressive ideals are incompatible with rigid disciplinary foundationalism. More specifically, they are incompatible with a foundationalism that is incapable of critiquing the status quo. The social sciences are uniquely suited to assist Truman in meeting these goals — if they can shed their dogmatism. Critical traditions like Marxism and radical feminism supply ready-made alternatives to reigning disciplinary orthodoxies. They can be evaluated objectively — with regards to their internal consistency, relevance and explanatory power. While debates over whether or not they meet these criteria are sure to occur, dismissing them out of hand is socially irresponsible and intellectually dishonest. Truman’s vision statement speaks to an education beyond careerism. To realize such an education, those in academia must break down the barriers between disciplines and challenge our assumptions — ruthlessly, and without delay.