Smart Movements Start Academic Disciplines

Cross-posted from Cold Button Issues.

There’s a lot of academic disciplines out there. And sometimes new ones emerge. I have a semi-defensive philosopher friend who likes to explain how many of today’s independent academic disciplines are just offshoots of philosophy.

Sometimes a new discipline (like biochemistry) emerges out of old disciplines due to increases in knowledge and specialization. Sometimes individual departments or whole disciplines rebrand to seem more current or generally applicable- such as the transformation of many forestry schools into schools of the environment and sustainability studies.

Other times, new disciplines are created due to political activism. And once created they can be a huge asset to the movements or ideologies that spawned them.

The Left and Its Disciplines

Sixty years ago there were no Women’s Studies departments in the United States. There were no Black Studies departments either. Now they’re commonplace. Other ethnic studies programs have flourished as has queer studies. While none of these are common majors, they’re entrenched in both red states and blue states.

Looking at the political skew of today’s colleges maybe the spread of these disciplines doesn’t seem that impressive but this was not inevitable. The political climate of US campuses when such disciplines began was not as friendly to leftwing identity politics as campuses typically are today. And there are still some universities and colleges that have refused to grant these newer disciplines their own department. Harvard does not have an ethnic studies department.

How did this happen? A lot of activism. The Third World Liberation Front, at UC Berkeley, led a lengthy strike, occupied offices, and organized protests until the university acceded to their demands to establish ethnic studies at UC Berkeley. The establishment of the discipline of women’s studies was driven by the women’s liberation movement and the establishment of the first few programs depended on extensive activism, organization, and consciousness-raising. These disciplines didn’t just happen, they were fought for.

Once a discipline is closely affiliated or established by an ideology and that discipline is widely established across American academia, it nearly guarantees the representation of that ideology even at institutions that are hostile to it. Departments of that discipline become commonplace, even expected.

Take women’s studies or gender studies a field that is “inherently activist.” There are women’s studies or gender studies at many Christian colleges that have a reputation for ideological and theological conservatism. Calvin University- Dutch Reformed- has a gender studies program. Wheaton College- evangelical- offers a certificate in gender studies. Baylor University- Baptist- has a program. This means that even at relatively conservative schools there are professors who receive institutional funding to conduct feminist scholarship. That seems like a big win for the left!

The Right Just Has Centers

In American academia, there aren’t really right-wing disciplines, just less left-wing ones. At some colleges, conservative donors and activists have created academic centers designed to champion conservative beliefs, especially on economic issues. Sometimes they have names that don’t indicate a political affiliation, the Salem Center at UT-Austin. Sometimes their name makes their perspective pretty clear like the Bruce D. Benson Center for the Study of Western Civilization at the University of Colorado.

I assume these centers do deliver some advantages for the right. Donors fund them- they must think they provide some benefit. And I can think of impressive academics and intellectuals who work at them- which implies they think those positions are of value. These centers do things like provide jobs for embattled conservative or libertarian academics, host panels and conferences, and sometimes offer courses to students.

But centers lack many of the advantages of full-fledged departments and disciplines. They offer relatively few, if any, tenure-track positions. They don’t educate a large share of students. They can’t gain entry to universities where the ideological opposition is intense. They don’t set the agenda for research or control prestigious peer-reviewed journals that can be cited by Wikipedia and so on. They can be derailed by hostile administrators.

I’m not trying to be mean to American conservatives. In addition to centers, they have had genuine success in organizing across at least one key discipline: law. The law and economics subfield encourages the application of economic analysis to legal decisions, was heavily influenced by neoclassical economics, and was funded by conservative donors and business interests. Conferences were organized to promote this type of analysis and judges who attended these conferences subsequently became more conservative in their rulings on many economics issues. It’s definitely a win for the right.

An academic subfield no matter how prestigious lacks much of the autonomy of full-fledged disciplines and departments. Perhaps if the right had started decades ago, they could have achieved similar success as the left. Or maybe not. But today it seems like an impossible uphill battle.

Is there any plausible route for conservatives to establish their own academic discipline which would support conservative ideology and provide jobs and influence to sympathetic academics? Probably not. There isn’t a large student constituency willing to engage in activism including civil disobedience to pressure administrators to open such a department. There are quietly and in some cases openly conservative academics, but there aren’t many of them and they are scattered across disciplines so there’s not going to be legions of PhDs campaigning for this.

Finally, it’s not even clear what discipline conservatives should try to start. I can imagine more conservative versions of existing disciplines- philosophers that laugh uproariously whenever somebody invokes Rawls or sociologists who just to love to talk about the negative effects of divorce or psychologists who spend all their time defending the validity of IQ- but I’m not sure of what new discipline conservatives should try to foster.

The best I could come up with was home economics- now rebranded “Family and Consumer Sciences.” It seems to primarily be offered at purple or red state public colleges, or at Brigham Young University. Maybe these departments could be a beachhead of academics arguing that natalism, piety, and traditional gender roles are good but it seems unlikely.

Conservatives are in a bad position for organizing within academia. While many state colleges are technically controlled by Republican state legislatures and governors, Republican politicians have tended to be relatively hands off in terms of college management. Any effort to start a discipline to help the political right would face immense opposition and a disproportionately small talent pool given the paucity of conservative academics.

Starting a discipline would be easier for a movement that ,in contrast, is overrepresented among academics and is not directly opposed to the progressivism that dominates American academia.

I know just the movement.

Effective Altruists Love Welfare Economics

The effective altruist has a strange relationship with academia. On one hand it was more obviously birthed out of specific academic philosophies than most other social movements. Many effective altruists can name an analytical philosopher. Many effective altruists have a favorite philosopher or can name a specific philosophical argument that changed their life goals.

Effective altruists are disproportionately located at elite universities and 16% of the community has a doctorate.

On the other hand, many effective altruists view academic norms as pathological, think important disciplines and norms are effectively broken, and are more impressed with a well-written forum post than an article in a high-impact journal. There’s a general “vibe” that if effective altruists ran a school, it would be much better.

The movement also has at least one major funder who’s expressed interest in funding a new university. I think a better approach would be for effective altruist funders to fund a new academic discipline: welfare economics, the use of economic tools to evaluate aggregate well-being.

Welfare economics isn’t new of course. Specific welfare economists, such as Yew-Kwang Ng, contributed to the development of effective altruism. But it’s not its own discipline. I’ve looked and haven’t found a single independent academic department.

Why should effective altruists think it would be valuable for welfare economics to be its own discipline, with its own professional association, disciplinary norms, and independent academic departments? First, there is the shared intellectual orientation, the belief that the welfare of other beings matters- a lot. Encouraging research on better measuring welfare, making interpersonal welfare comparisons, and applied research on improving welfare seems like a pretty good idea. Second, many of the intellectual concerns of effective altruists are interdisciplinary- drawing on computer science, economics, politics, philosophy, and so forth. Interdisciplinary work can be risky for academics and graduate students who might think it’s valuable but professionally costly to pursue research that doesn’t help advance their academic career. Giving these topics a disciplinary home would make working on these topics more attractive.

The field of economics is big in American academia, awarding almost 50,000 degrees in 2020. It’s big enough that in addition to there being many schools with economics departments, there’s a fair number of schools with agricultural economics departments, including UC Berkeley, Purdue, and Michigan State University.

The existence of agriculture economics as its own field and department, at least at some institutions, owes to separate federal funding streams for agricultural research. Most subfields don’t have the funding to justify their independent existence. But if a major funder wanted to kickstart independent welfare economics departments, they might be able to pull it off.

Another limiting factor for a would-be discipline is the existence of students who would want to take courses in it. Here, I think welfare economics would shine. Not only is economics a popular major, degree programs that combine economics with other disciplines like politics and philosophy are increasingly being added by American universities.

Free-standing welfare economics departments could focus on researching the most important topics, encourage their students to write their theses on the most important topics, and provide a home for academics who want to dedicate their scholarship and their careers to the well-being of others.