End the Protectionist Policies in the Liberal Arts

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle

May 05, 2014

During a meeting off campus this semester, a colleague in the business college spoke to me about a course on the history of globalization that we had once taught together. She told me, with some consternation, that the class, cross-listed with business and history when we taught it, had been dropped from the history-department listing when, with my blessing, she had gone solo with it. With her enrollment numbers flagging, she wondered if I could find out what had happened.

The request was, quite literally, academic. We both knew that the disappearance of her class from my department’s course listing had nothing to do with her credentials: As a newly minted Berkeley Ph.D., fluent in a half-dozen languages, and as a promising scholar, my colleague was also a caring and committed teacher. Nor did the disappearance have anything to do with the course’s relevance for history majors: With Tony Judt’s Postwar as our principal text, along with flurries of historical accounts and source documents, the class was steeped in historical methodology.

When I wrote to the chair of our history department, my suspicion was confirmed. The department would not list any courses taught by faculty members other than its own. One needn’t be from the economics department to know the reason: With history’s declining enrollment, we needed to preserve what we could for our own faculty. But it might take an economist—not to mention a humanist—to explain why that reflex is, in the long run, self-defeating.

While I have not undertaken a systematic study, what colleagues at my university and at others have told me suggests we aren’t the only ones circling the wagons. Of course, given the territorial nature of academic departments, cross-listing has always been an exercise in cunning, stamina, and frequent failure. Several years ago, during an era of relative plenty, I tried to persuade our philosophy department to credit a new history course I was teaching on the Enlightenment. Neither the reading list, bursting with texts from Bacon and Locke to Montesquieu and Diderot, nor the publication of my own book on Hume and Rousseau undid the suspicion that a professional historian simply didn’t have the requisite philosophical chops to teach such a course. The course was confined to the history department, and I found cold comfort in the thought that none of those 18th-century thinkers had a Ph.D. in philosophy.

In times of recession, however, quality control becomes less of an issue than simple survival. The business of the liberal arts is not exempt from the age and erosion that afflicts the traditional industrial bases of many Western countries. For years, we have seen skilled workers in those threatened sectors mobilize while their political representatives scramble. Bills for protective tariffs or quotas are proposed, while "Made in America" or "Made in France" campaigns are launched. Academe seems to be responding in the very same fashion. How different is a sales pitch for a pickup truck that is "Made in Texas" from a course on globalization "Made in the Department of History"?

In the short run, protectionist policies tend to work; in the long run, not so much. By walling off domestic industries not just from competition but often also from cooperation, they guarantee the very result they sought to prevent: irrelevance and inferiority. In such situations, an observation made by the economist Paul Krugman also applies to the academy. If there were an economist’s creed, he wrote, it would contain two affirmations: "I understand the Principle of Comparative Advantage," and "I advocate Free Trade."

Free trade is especially crucial for a liberal-arts department. In an age of increasing specialization, when promotions are based on scholarship (no matter how obscure or antiquarian), tenured professors have little motivation to create new courses or overhaul old ones. For an economist, this is hardly surprising: Academics are rational agents pursuing their particular interests. (And like the rest of humankind, they tend to remain at rest unless pushed by an outside force.)

Nor is it surprising that tenure-track professors tend to be equally conservative. Rather than making waves, it is in their self-interest to keep the department anchored where they found it—even as it settles on the bed of a steadily evaporating lake. The presence of colleagues from other departments, in such situations, can do wonders, if only by nudging the department toward deeper and, yes, uncharted waters. This can be unnerving, but also salutary. In the case of the class on the history of globalization, it was not only the history majors who discovered the relevance of economic and political theory in grasping the past. So, too, did I. It turns out you can teach an old historian new BRICs.

Of course, comparative advantage suggests we should leave the teaching of economic models to the departments of economics and business, since that is what they do best, while they leave the teaching of history to historians. But the principle does not exclude cooperation; in fact, it encourages it. The slipping of economic and business models into a history class might well encourage students who are allergic to such fields to reconsider them. At the same time, business students will discover the historical dimension of their world, whose complexity and depth serve as correctives to models and theories.

One sorry consequence of liberal-arts protectionism is less the actions of a particular department than the reaction of other departments and colleges. It is not at all far-fetched to conclude that they will respond in similar fashion. And, to be sure, why shouldn’t they? Once they do, the liberal arts will confront a world of their own making as grim as the world in the wake of the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act of 1930.

Robert Zaretsky is a professor of French history at the University of Houston Honors