As a historian of the social sciences, rather than a social scientist, I am struck by recent conversations about interdisciplinarity, in Items and elsewhere. Perhaps my surprise is due to the dogged individualism of the historical profession, which does not routinely undertake the kinds of collaboration that can make interdisciplinarity successful. But my note of dissonance is also related my skepticism that interdisciplinarity should be measured solely on the basis of research output—a tendency evident in this Items forum and also in the broader enterprise of “interdisciplinary studies,” a field that has its own canonical handbook and research institute.

Reflecting on the history of area studies in Items is appropriate. The Social Science Research Council did more than any other single institution to build up the enterprise in and around American universities starting in the 1940s. But publishing (or should I say posting?) such a reflection here is also ironic, as the SSRC also played an important, if controversial, role in the shift away from area studies in the 1990s—favoring on the one hand global or at least transregional phenomena that did not fit neatly into delimited (and then institutionalized) areas, and on the other hand preferring levels of generalization beyond the comfort zone of many area specialists.

“The interdisciplinary study of modern world regions was double-barreled.”

From its origins during World War II, the interdisciplinary study of modern world regions was double-barreled. Wartime efforts included the famous Research and Analysis Branch of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), which pioneered what historian Barry Katz (in Foreign Intelligence) cleverly termed “social science in one country.” OSS scholars—many of whom would go on to great fame in their postwar disciplines—worked to combine the disciplines to meet the needs of their “consumers”: civilian and military decisionmakers. As historian Geroid Tanquary Robinson, head of the OSS’s USSR Division, put it, the military was “not interested in the production of principles of social sciences, neatly departmentalized”; they wanted instead answers that “involved all the disciplines.” Later genealogies of area studies looked to the OSS as a pioneer in interdisciplinary research, and with good reason.

The wartime programs that left the most significant postwar legacies, however, took place outside the world of intelligence agencies in Washington. The OSS, after all, was shifted from one organization to another after the war, and then was dissolved; the Central Intelligence Agency was a successor to the OSS, though it, at first, did not replicate the area organization that defined Research and Analysis. Far more significant legacies, institutionally speaking, came from the training programs of the military services. The US Navy started a small Oriental Languages School while the US Army established sprawling efforts like the Army Specialized Training Program (ASTP) and Civil Affairs Training School (CATS). These programs, which sought to prepare American soldiers and sailors for work abroad, sprouted up all across the country. Single-campus programs like the Naval School for Military Government and Administration, based at Columbia University, provided a similar preparation for enlisted personnel and officers who might be used in military occupations of the defeated Axis powers. Their standardized curricula emphasized language and culture training, and applied on large scale new techniques of teaching oral/aural communication through the use of drill instructors—a term with a clear military resonance. The lecture-plus-drill approach served the needs of the uniformed military in two important ways: it emphasized oral communication over grammar and philology; and it was suitable for large-scale instruction.

After the war, celebrations of wartime area studies emphasized teaching over research. A whirlwind of conferences sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation, the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS), the Modern Language Association—and especially by the SSRC—emphasized the value of interdisciplinarity in teaching far more than in research. In language resonant in recent discussions of “global studies” in the twenty-first century, scholars sought to promote a cosmopolitan sensibility that would help students “learn to live in the crowded world of the second half of the twentieth century.” A college without courses on various world areas, another scholar stressed, “is simply not equipped to educate students for life in the late nineteen hundreds.” Intensive exposure to another culture, the official concluded, would teach young citizens the “tolerance” necessary to “make life possible in a spherical world.” The American Council on Education and the ACLS insisted that area studies could train future government officials, intelligence analysts—and business executives. Thus the area studies complex at Columbia, founded as the School of International Affairs, built on the literal and figurative foundation of the wartime efforts and offered MA degrees in Russian, Asian, and European studies. Teaching the “art of government and administration,” Columbia personnel argued, required “cut[ting] across fields.”

“In interdisiciplinarity’s original form, pedagogy was as important as research.”

Meanwhile, interdisciplinary scholarship was greeted with a good deal of suspicion, especially at the SSRC. Skeptical voices at SSRC meetings insisted that “area research cannot be expected to contribute to the advance of pure science”; another offered that “I can imagine a man trained in areas as being a most charming gentleman and interesting conversationalist but not as being a scholar.” My point here is not to endorse such skeptics, only to note that in its original form, as developed by SSRC in conjunction with the ACLS, the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations, and a bevy of universities, pedagogy was as important as research.

When the area studies vs. disciplines debates became more heated in the 1960s—especially among political scientists—both sides sought to make their case in terms of published output. MIT’s Lucien Pye, an Asian studies scholar with close ties to government agencies—and a president of the American Political Science Association—considered the tension between discipline and area as a side-effect of addressing larger questions of relevance; how did research in area studies provide policy-relevant insights? Richard Lambert at the University of Pennsylvania, in contrast, dismissed the debate as a one-sided conflict of “rigor versus mortis.” The published disputes about area studies in the 1990s—at the SSRC and elsewhere—similarly emphasized scholarly output.

Yet lost in those debates—and to a disappointing degree in more recent discussions—is the value of interdisciplinarity as a teaching enterprise, both at the bachelor’s and the master’s levels. Area programs supported by ACLS/SSRC joint committees, Ford, Rockefeller, and eventually by the federal National Defense Education Act, contributed handily to the expansion of language enrollments—more students studying more languages—during the Cold War. Area programs, with or without extramural funding, remain crucial gathering places for students and faculty interested in a given region. This pedagogical mission has not ended just because its original justification, American-Soviet ideological conflict, has. As students and faculty rightly turn their attentions to issues that don’t fit easily into regional boxes—migration, environmental concerns, global networks—they also need a grounding in individual cultures, politics, and languages—just the sort of interdisciplinary education that area studies promises and provides. To be sure, there are a variety of forms of interdisciplinary work well beyond area studies, including some powerful and influential ones also discussed in Items. In any case, all of us balance research and teaching in our own scholarly lives, and need to bring some of that balance to our evaluations of interdisciplinary studies as well.

This post draws on Engerman’s recent article “The Pedagogical Purposes of Interdisciplinary Social Science: A View from Area Studies in the United States,” Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences (Winter 2015). All quoted text can be found cited there.

Posted on July 19, 2016