Saturday 25 August 2012

PTJ on SMW on Education and Knowledge

Patrick T. Jackson on Stephen M. Walt on the education of young gentlemen would-be policy wonks:

Walts (sic) sings the praises of a liberal education

I have a problem with this part:
Walt suggests that "geography matters" so students ought to learn things like the physical characteristics of different regions. But this is a non sequitur, since it is entirely possible for one to maintain that geography matters without becoming a geographical determinist. Studying the physical characteristics of a region and expecting them to give one insight into social and political dynamics is geographical determinism...
This 'non sequitur' allegation is itself a non sequitur!  'Physical geography matters' is not determinism; 'physical geography determines' is determinism.  And I don't buy the slippery slope argument that if we allow mountains, rivers and so on into our analyses that we're a hop and a skip away from Mackinder.  What about, for instance, Jared Diamond?  Is he beyond the pale?  I know that he has a tendency to reify things like 'national culture' and for that I would criticise him but in general he does an excellent job of drawing sociality and materiality together in such a fashion that neither determines the other.  Braudel too.

This either/or logic is the fundamental weakness of social constructivism: that either we bracket out materiality (in this case physical geography) completely or else we'll inevitably end up saying that mountains, rivers and disease mechanically determine the various trajectories of humanity.  It just doesn't follow.  More seriously, it limits the potential of constructivism with respect to critique, interpretation and explanation.  It's old fashioned dualism dressed up in fashionable new jargon.

Down with this sort of thing!

Other than that, however, I agree with PTJ.  Walt all too easily, and perhaps even subconsciously, suggests that some epistemic practices have access to reality while others simply stitch together different aptitudes and interpretations.  This is the very worst of advice.

In this century the sociology of knowledge has to be a core part of any decent liberal arts education (or, frankly, any decent education).  Without it there can be no reflexivity or self-awareness with respect to everything else that one is learning.  Without that students are likely to take the geology, biology and, worst of all, the economics of the matter to be the 'really real' behind all the interpretations.

However, that said, it'd help if social constructivism (the kind taught to IR students, at least) didn't so wilfully cut reality straight down the middle and pretend that most of the constitutive elements of our worldly existence should be ignored, lest they 'determine' us.