Presentation Details

The Second International Conference on New Directions in the Humanities

Whither the Political Science Major at Liberal Arts Colleges?

Prof Timothy V. Kaufman-Osborn.

Much American higher education during the latter half of the nineteenth century took place in small colleges rather than universities. More often than not, these colleges were founded by persons hoping to institutionalize and advance a particular body of theological doctrine. In large measure, disintegration of this vision of higher education is to be attributed to the growth of the modern university system, which itself cannot be understood apart from transformations in the status of science within American culture. What one sees in the closing decades of the nineteenth century is the gradual disengagement of "natural philosophy" from theology. As science comes to displace the Bible as the authoritative ground of American educational practice, the idea of transmitting wisdom through teaching rooted in faith wanes. What slowly takes its place is our now familiar idea that knowledge is something to be accumulated by professionals and conveyed by experts whose authority stems from their disciplined mastery of a specialized epistemic province.

These transformations in the business of knowledge did not leave traditional liberal arts colleges unchanged. Then, as now, most post-secondary school teachers received their doctorates from the large universities in which independent disciplines were so quickly proliferating; and, not surprisingly, liberal arts colleges ever more looked to this quite different sort of institution for cues regarding the appropriate form and content of knowledge. As a result, the structure of major programs at such colleges gradually came to incorporate and express the ethos of those trained to think of themselves as specialists devoted to the accumulation of knowledge in defined areas of expertise.

After reviewing this history, my aim is to ask how liberal arts colleges might begin to emancipate themselves from the tyranny of the university model, not with the aim of restoring the nineteenth century theological curriculum, but, rather, with the aim of fashioning a program of study that is appropriate to the interdisciplinary imperatives of the twenty-first century.


Prof Timothy V. Kaufman-Osborn  (United States)
Department of Politics
Whitman College

Timothy Kaufman-Osborn is the Baker Ferguson Professor of Politics at Whitman College. He is the author of several books, including Politics/Sense/Experience (Cornell University Press), Creatures of Prometheus (Rowman & Littlefield), and From Noose to Needle (University of Michigan Press). He is also the author of numerous articles on various topics, including American pragmatism, Emile Durkheim, capital punishment, feminist theory, the Meiji Restoration in Japan, etc. Finally, from 2001 to 2003, he served as president of the Western Political Science Association, and he now serves as the president of the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington.

  • Political Science
  • Liberal Arts Colleges
  • Humanities Curriculum

(30 min. Conference Paper, English)