One of my guilty pleasures is reading the Twitter feed of Real Peer Review. The condescending wit is well deserved in most cases—Sociologists waxing about human supremacyand Postmodern Studies researchers doing autoethnographies of their experiences exploiting third world men for sex. A few other recent gems include a hegemonic Snooki post-feminist narrative analysis and a vegan exploration of the “construction of gender.”
While I giggle at the utter insanity of it all, a part of me sniffles in self-pity. That part is the one that remembers that I, too, am indicted in the contemporary social science hellscape. I am a Sociology student.
However, the (very small) size and location of my University, UNB Saint John, gives me the unique opportunity to witness and participate in microcosm the current state of the social sciences. Saint John is a conservative, working class, blue-collar city, and the vast majority of the student body are from the greater rural and municipal area. If there ever was a place to readily dismiss the social sciences as impractical hogwash, it’s Saint John—And it is.
The Sociology department specifically has undergone some recent changes attempting to redirect it towards meeting the demands for pragmatism, merging the subject with other, ‘real-world’ topics such as Urban Studies, Health, and (soon) the Environment. The purpose seems to be to address the usual criticisms aimed at the field… That it doesn’t lead to work or deal with practical issues. A quick Google search shows that other Universities in Canada and the United States are taking similar steps to combat their consistently declining social science/humanities enrollments.
While I can hear STEM-supremacists clapping now, I, for one, do not meet these changes with excitement or optimism despitethe fact that I recognize the field is in crisis. UNBSJ’s moves might seem smart and progressive, but only superficially.
Take, for example, the very real, very important issue of student post-graduation employment. The skills a social science student leaves University with are oft-maligned and hardly in door-busting demand. But why? Is it truly because the field as a whole is useless? Or could it be because it has largely abandoned its traditional foundation of critical thought in favor of social justice wokeness and excessive deconstructionism—creating cookie cutter ideologues with inflated grades of far too many people?
In moving social science away from its roots and merging it with other fields, Universities are reducing the culpability of those cringe-worthy folks Real Peer Review rightfully mocks—the individuals who are responsible for social theory becoming weaponized to begin with. It is handing to them, on a silver platter, the entire discipline, advertising that the field is no longer useful or valuable unless it is haphazardly grouped in with another department that apparently "is".
It is letting the scholars of black anal eroticization misappropriate the rich history and vast contributions of the social sciences. It is suggesting that meaningful work in the field cannot exist independent of another propping up its academic endeavours. It is delaying the clichéd hard look the social sciences must take at itself if desires genuine survival, and to not be immortalized on a satirical Twitter feed.
Summer of 2017, pre-Sokal Squared, I shamelessly tested the limits of Sokal-hoax logic, submitting a pathetically underdeveloped paper exploring a Feminist reading of the characterization of Sandy Cheeks from SpongeBob SquarePants. I got an A. And the worst part is, I only felt confident doing it—the GPA-vain honours student I am—because I knew I would get an A. I knew that so long as I walked the mandated line, the quality or contributory factor of the work simply would not matter. I still feel dirty about it.
It is this kind of ideological rigidity that has transformed the social sciences from an area driven by vigorous debate and lively academic interrogation to the beast of irrelevance it has become recognized as today. The post-Frankfurt School weaponization of social theory chastises dissent and promotes hivemind in every Critical XYZ Studiesclassroom. Students are not invited to partake in the magnificence of the investigative process but told to follow an ideological template. This has robbed them of their right to develop one of the most valuable and vendible skills that a person can have: The ability to think.
But the issues with the declining value of a non-STEM university education is far from isolated to the climactic dogmatism of the field. It is not as simple as blaming the zealots spitting pablum at the front of the class, though I wish it were. Doctrinaire professors are easy to hate, and even easier to blame for the current state of academia, and certainly they have their role. But so does grade inflation and an over-abundance of social science degrees in the marketplace. Universities have long shifted towards a business model which has sought profit and status as primary motivators, rather than the intellectual endeavour and protection of controversial and promising minds and ideas.
Entering University STEM, there is a litany of requirements. Certain grade achievements from high school in math, chemistry, biology, and/or computer sciences. Some universities even encourage students to submit letters of recommendation from high school teachers in those subjects to strengthen application and demonstrate success. Exiting STEM, by and large, means entering into fields which have regulatory bodies and licensures which demand quality compliances in order to secure employment.
If a University were to turn out poor STEM graduates, it would become readily apparent and known. By contrast, arts degrees have no such quality control, making them ripe for exploitation by the profit-hungry institution. Students of low or no interest, preparation, or future planning can be lured in immediately after high school with the promise of delaying adulthood for another four years. They sit in pointless classes, racking up incredible debt, while churning out mediocre essays every few months for mediocre grades in subjects they’ve not a clue or care about. Social Sciences and Humanities have gone from being the core lifeblood of the University, fields for sweat-drenching thought, to a cash cow comprising of gape-mouthed teens being spat at by ideologues.
As someone who genuinely cares about my education and has had the honour of being accompanied on my journey by some wonderful, passionate professors, what is being done to the social sciences and humanities is nothing short of depressing for me. I sometimes wrestle with the thought of my rapidly approaching post-graduation life, knowing I’ll be continuing on to a Master’s in order to increase the value of my oversaturated degree.
And after, I’ll likely have to continue on to a PhD to increase the value of that oversaturated degree.
And after, I’ll just find a ditch to lay in, because there are no jobs for PhDs. Universities aren’t hiring fast enough. They’re oversaturated.
But maybe I won’t be able to find a ditch. Maybe they’ll be oversaturated, too.