Dear prospective International Studies student,
First up, I want to be clear that you will have an amazing time. You will be exposed to innumerable opportunities, you need only reach out and grasp them. I’ve learned to sing, dance, and act (with varying success) in UNSW’s Law Revue. I’ve played Barnaby Joyce on stage, then met him in person during a federal by-election campaign. I’ve learned about the Yemen conflict from a UNSW academic one night, then watched him on TV analysing the Syrian Civil War for the ABC the next. I’ve debated in the Moot Court in the Law Building and in the Legislative Assembly on Macquarie St. No doubt your journey will differ, but these are the kinds of things you will get to do; the stars really are closer than you think.
But there is an immense pachyderm in the lecture hall, whose presence we may neglect no longer. One of the first things you will notice when you enter your first Arts lecture is how Marxist the place is. Feminists and post-colonialists are everywhere. Everyone likes to criticise capitalism. Objective truth is a thing of the (pre-1989) past, which may come as a surprise if you have just come out of a Physics exam.
In high school, I despised the way that English teachers would seek “sophistication” in essays, as if obfuscation were a skill in itself. But I also wasn’t very good at maths. I care about the ramifications of ideas; I’m a Peter Singer fan. That’s where I’m coming from; to use the Arts jargon, this set of biases is my ‘positionality’ that can be ‘problematised’, or observed ‘critically’. Since starting my degree in February, it took me eight months to come to the following conclusion:
The reason why academics in the social sciences love to reject objective truth and undermine the mainstream is because they were bad at maths tests when they were 17.
Few scholars in the social sciences openly identify with classical theories of neoliberalism and economic growth. In the social sciences, it’s cool to be critical. It’s cool to use hesitant formulations like “I identify most strongly with…”. But then again, declaring openly that you are a realist is like declaring that you are an atheist or a Muslim. Someone has chalked an outline of a man on the ground, and you have chosen to go along and lie in it.
But there are some people out there who have real work to do, and are happy to lie in the chalk outline to resolve the preliminary questions quickly. There is a group of neoliberals at UNSW, maintaining the assumptions of economic growth as development, working to deepen theoretical and empirical understandings of the field. They are called Commerce lecturers.
It all comes back to the humanities/sciences divide. It begins in high school, when students decide which subjects they want to study. This is the heart of the divide between conservatives and progressives, between objectivity and post-positivism, between economists and anthropologists. Academic disciplines themselves are not value-neutral: the demands of economics render the field more amenable to universal proclamations, whereas the demands of anthropology invite cultural relativism.
Academic disciplines are bell curves gradually moving further apart from one another. They have branched off into different directions, determined by the questions they ask about human behaviour. If, when you enter university, you feel that the dominant paradigms in the discipline you enter differ from the orthodoxy you have known in broader society (for instance, from print media and government policy), you are probably correct. The centre of the bell curve of Development Studies, for instance, lies to the left of the bell curve of the dataset containing every discipline.
Additionally, there is indeed a school of classical liberal thinkers (my own crowd) out there. Steven Pinker, a linguist and psychologist, is one. Sam Harris, a neuroscientist and philosopher, is another. So is Francis Fukuyama, a political scientist. But notice how these disciplines are all peripheral to core Arts interests like Development Studies or International Relations. And there is a backlash: in a 2015 response to Pinker’s book The Better Angels of Our Nature, the political philosopher John Gray condemns (apparently without irony) “the sorcery of numbers”.
Gray has written an impressive summary of Pinker’s ideas – that is, the presentation of statistics showing a decline in violence, along with arguments for state power and Enlightenment rationality as the causes. In that respect alone, I would recommend the article. But Gray’s contempt for statistics reveals how blinkered his Arts worldview is, as does the refrain “I never was good at maths” of each person whose lips it has ever escaped.
We need interdisciplinarity, not merely in the sense of sharing knowledge between Sociology and Anthropology, or between Politics and International Relations, but in a far more fundamental sense. We need to knock down the partitions that have calcified in the minds of people who upon leaving high school breathed a sigh of relief at never having to do Maths (or English) ever again. Because this partition is not merely one of childhood aptitude or interest. It has political consequences, and it is a contributing factor to why political partisans seem no longer able to understand each other in our divided age.
Lawyers should learn how to code. Social scientists need to learn to do maths. And yes, economists will learn something from reading the voluminous body of critique that Development Studies has heaped on them.
All the best,
A soon-to-be second-year UNSW International Studies student.