Gov: Too Traditional?

Brass Tacks

A well-known political scientist--when asked, recently, his opinion of Harvard's Government Department--replied, "They're in trouble, and they know it." Certainly an exaggeration, his statement nonetheless reflects widespread concern for the viability of Harvard's strongly traditional, historical-institutional approach to the study of government.

This concern was well summarized by Professor Stanley Hoffmann's recent statement justifying the Social Studies program: "We are graduating government majors with no knowledge of Freud or Weber...." Harvard is one of few major universities of which this can be said. Elsewhere, approaches to political science have been broadened to utilize the tools of such behavioral sciences as psychology and sociology.

While such behavioral approaches to political science ought to be treated with skepticism, no student of government should lack an introduction to their methods or their most important insights. Only at Harvard do large numbers of Government concentrators spend four years without ever reading a voting study, or without knowing that empirical observation is being used to test the contentions of classical political theory.

A poll of political scientists, published in the American Political Science Journal, recently, showed that "behaviorism and general politics" was considered the most significant of several divisions of political science--even though fewest of those polled considered themselves to be working in this area. Yet it is this field which is largely neglected at Harvard.


Even more disturbing, from Harvard's standpoint, was the poll's rating of leading political scientists. Of the top ten, only V. O. Key, who died last year, was a Harvard professor; and none were Harvard-trained. (Interestingly, six of the ten were trained at Chicago.)

Harvard Defended

Defenders of the Harvard Department point out that, in spite of these results, the Department as a whole was rated first in the country by the same poll. But this is often explained in part by a kneejerk reflex to the word "Harvard"; about 70 per cent of Harvard's departments were top-rated in a more general poll some years ago. Also, since until recently Harvard produced more Ph.D.'s than any other university, many respondents may merely have been supporting their alma mater.

It is true, however, that Harvard's weakness in the behavioral field is often exaggerated, partly because of the Government Department's undeniable strength in the more traditional areas. And many members of the Department--even those whose intellectual orientation is anti-behaviorist--are concerned with correcting the imbalance. The last three or four tenured appointments have been in this area, and a taste of empirical knowledge can had in the courses of Banfield, Wilson, Huntington, and a few others.

Then too, efforts to recruit well-known behaviorists, such as Robert Dahl, of Yale, failed for reasons beyond the Department's control. The University cannot hire some of the people it would like to because it refuses on principle to offer the special salary inducements with which other institutions build their departments. Other men cannot come to Cambridge for personal reasons, or because they are satisfied with their present positions.

But the image--perhaps even more than the fact--of a hostile atmosphere towards empirical social science is also important. In this, the Social Relations Department is as guilty as Government. Elsewhere, sociology departments have drawn political science into empirical work by their own political sociology. But Harvard's Soc Rel Department is so purely conceptual, and even more unbalanced than the Gov Department, that any such influence is out of the question. (Government students who seek the hard facts of American political life in political or urban sociology courses are greeted instead with grand theories, conceptual schemes, and Balinese villages.)

Anti-Behavioral Bias

As important, in the long run, as attracting well-known behaviorists, is achieving balance among lower-level appointments. And several professors admit that there is a (partly unconscious) anti-behavioral bias at this level. Departments tend to themselves, as senior members are marily of work being done in their such empiricists as V.O. Key have -building personality" of some of the more traditionalist professors, such as Friedrich or Elliott.

As long as the present situation is not corrected by appointments (and as long as the Social Studies program is too small and too selective to be of any real value as a corrective), then some other method of balancing undergraduate political sciences education--such as a standard sophomore tutorial which would introduce concentrators to the various approaches--should be considered.