category: President's Blog

July 2020: Revival of the Social Sciences

July 2020 President's Blog Image

In this month’s blog, I’m not going to mention COVID-19, Coronavirus, pandemics, face coverings, vaccines, or even social distancing.  Indulge me…there are other pressing issues.

As the infamous year 2020 lurches forward, we should take note of what’s going on across our nation.  There’s hurt, frustration, and anger in the streets of some of our largest cities.  There’s widespread reconsideration of the nation’s history and of some of its principal players.  There’s a highly polarized national election looming on the near horizon.  Superimposed upon all of these strains are economic volatility and uncertainty.  We see the economic fallout of 2020’s first six months in the number of local businesses that don’t appear to be reopening after the North Carolina shutdown.

What’s the role for a university such as Gardner-Webb in the face of all this turbulence?  I’ll cut to the chase…I’m a political scientist.  I have spent my career studying democracy, voting and elections, leadership, power, social movements, and (in)tolerance.  I’ve traveled to South Africa to study apartheid, to Northern Ireland to learn more about religious sectarian violence, and to Belgium to decipher the history of conflict between different linguistic groups.  I’ve lived and worked in Germany, France, and Denmark trying to better understand identity politics and efforts to overcome xenophobia.  

Political science—along with psychology, economics, history, anthropology, sociology, and criminal justice—is a discipline within the academic area deemed Social Sciences.  In the paragraphs below, I will make the case that we need the social sciences today more than ever and that Gardner-Webb students would be well served by sampling from among the many courses we have to offer in this area.  We’re all presently caught in this awkward moment…let’s make it a teachable moment.

First, some myth-busting.  In the popular media, the social sciences don’t fare too well.  Television’s “The Big Bang Theory,” for example, featured physicist Sheldon Cooper routinely reminding us that “The social sciences are largely hokum.”  Political journalist Michael Kinsley claims, “Many ‘hard’ scientists regard the term ‘social science’ as an oxymoron. Science means hypotheses you can test, and prove or disprove. Social science is little more than observation putting on airs.”  My favorite retort, though, is provided by Jared Diamond who decades ago wrote,

As to the relative importance of soft and hard sciences for humanity’s future, there can be no comparison…Our survival depends on whether we progress with understanding how people behave, why some societies become frustrated, whether their governments tend to become unstable, and how political leaders make decisions like whether to press a red button (“Soft Sciences are Often Harder than Hard Sciences,” Discover, 1987, p. 39).

This Fall at Gardner-Webb, faculty will challenge students to ask and answer the big questions about our social, political, and economic world.  No indoctrination.  No bias.  Just good old-fashioned, data-driven critical thinking about conditions we can observe.  Not the name-calling and mindless drivel that tries to pass for commentary on that race-to-the-bottom that we call social media.  Instead…solutions, pathways, progress, reconciliation.

Looking at our course schedule, we offer everything from the Survey of US History (HIST 244/245), an Honors Seminar on the 2020 Election (HONR 395/396), American Government (POLS 202), The President and Congress (POLS 333), Social Psychology (PSYC 310), Social Problems (SOCI 202), Minority Groups (SOCI 400), Global Understanding (SSCI 205), Ethics in Criminal Justice (CJC 320), and Principles of Economics (ECO 203/204), among many others.  If I were an undergraduate, I’d jump all over these courses regardless of my major.

speaker at a seminar

At Gardner-Webb, we will have an opportunity this coming academic year to model thoughtful civil discourse as we address important contemporary issues. We should do that in the classroom, on the quad, in the cafeteria, online, and everywhere else. I hope we seize the moment to organize multiple presidential and vice presidential debate watching events (I’ll buy the pizza) that bring students and faculty together to listen, learn, and analyze. I hope that our College Democrats and College Republicans will engage each other and the entire campus community in constructive dialogue and debate. I hope that our Student Government Association will make it clear to everyone that it is indeed possible to lead while also bringing people together.

In the longer term, there are some initiatives that we can take to strengthen the social sciences at GWU.  Our recently launched University Strategic Plan pledges creation of a major new “Religion and Culture” public lecture series that will attract scholars, theologians, and the general public to engage in dialogue about timely topics.  I hope we can one day be the host site for an annual National History Day regional contest, which would bring hundreds of promising middle school and high school students to our campus.  I hope we can one day be the host site for an annual High School Model United Nations contest, which would provide an outstanding recruitment pipeline for our own collegiate Model UN program.  I hope we can one day be the host site for an annual Great Decisions program (sponsored by the Foreign Policy Association), which would bring members of our community to campus to engage with faculty and students on important issues of the day.

A good university not only produces graduates who have the skills to succeed in their chosen professions, it also produces graduates who have the understanding to thrive in an ever-evolving society.  Thinkers, doers, and world-changers…a revived appetite for the social sciences will help shape Gardner-Webb graduates into citizens who are prepared to make a positive and lasting impact on the lives of all those around them.  Let’s answer that call…

Pro Deo et Humanitate,

Dr. William M. Downs
President

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