History is a balloon survivor

December 19, 1997

I found the "Great Balloon Debate", staged in the The THES nearly two years ago, so fascinating, I have taken to producing versions of it with my foundation-year students. The ensuing discussions have taught me a lot about my students and their generation's world view. What I have learned has been both encouraging and frightening, serving to remind me of the challenges my colleagues and I confront.

I should start by refreshing memories of the original Great Balloon Debate. Behaving like the gods on Mount Olympus, the newspaper posed the following question: "Seven (scientists/social scientists/humanists) are plunging to earth in an overloaded hot air balloon. Six must jump off if the balloon is to be light enough for just one to float to safety. But who should be the lucky survivor?" In successive weeks the respective science, social science, and humanities disciplines were pitted against each other in a grand game of survival. First, the disciplines from each area faced off in a winner-takes-all battle; then, the three winners competed to see which of them would prevail in the final perilous confrontation. Champions were selected to represent their disciplines and we readers were asked to choose the survivor by voting online. Though only a game, intellectual honour was at stake. And, given the meagre material rewards of academe, honour is everything, no?

My university is an interdisciplinary institution. So, my immediate thought was "all the disciplines should perish". And yet I could not resist following the debate. I not only voted, I also put together a social science Great Balloon Debate on my own campus.

I invited faculty from anthropology, economics, geography, political science, psychology and sociology to appear before my 150-student lecture course and present five-minute statements explaining why their discipline should survive while the others sacrificed themselves. My colleagues' commitments and murderous instincts quickly revealed themselves. Each not only spoke eloquently for his or her discipline, each also seemed willing, if not eager, to throw the others out of the balloon.

Our results differed from those in The Thes, where geography triumphed among the social sciences, but at UW-Green Bay, anthropology prevailed.

I learned that in each area the practitioners of at least one of the disciplines had organised and mobilised to save themselves: in science, particle physicists; in the humanities, religion folk; and, in the social sciences, geographers.

Here in the American midwest what truly determined the outcome was the strength of the case made by our anthropologist, Lynn Walter. Though I would not have saved anthropology, my students did, persuaded by Professor Walter's argument that the skills and sensibilities which her discipline cultivates are invaluable in a complex, diverse and multicultural world. Indeed, my students' deliberations impressed and pleased me.

It was so much fun, I decided to restage the debate this year. However, I set it up differently. Instead of recruiting colleagues, I arranged for my students to debate the matter themselves. I set out the problem and gave my students a week to decide individually which discipline should survive and to prepare their arguments.

To launch the balloon I provided definitions of each discipline, but I said they could use outside resources to help them make their choices and cases. Plus, I added my own favourite, history, to the passenger list.

I was in for a shock. When my students reported back, the overwhelming majority had chosen to save history. I got excited and allowed myself to believe that I was witnessing the end of American students' lack of interest in the subject. But my students soon disabused me of the fantasy. Their selection reflected not a return to the discipline but youthful resourcefulness and good old pragmatism.

Aside from the few who really were "turned on" to historical studies, most - as they repeatedly explained - had chosen to rescue the discipline because it apparently encompasses just about "everything" (at least as it is presently practised). They figured, if we save history, we can eventually rediscover all the others. I now felt ambivalent. I could not fail to appreciate their cleverness.

But it was disturbing that political science had only a couple of advocates (and they spoke of Machiavellian ambitions). True, I would probably join the majority in dumping it - but only after we had joyfully hurled economics and psychology overboard.

Nevertheless, it turned out that my students were willing to give up far more than the academic discipline. They actually spoke as if they were prepared to junk politics and political questions altogether. As more than one of them put it: "Who cares about politics?" - confident that the answer was "nobody".

The more we talked, the clearer it became that although my students value history as a record of human experience - like a gigantic World Wide Web of the past to be called online when you need it - it is not something to which they feel any intimate connection.

When I asked them which discipline they would prefer to study, the greatest number replied "psychology", as you might expect in this therapeutic age. They believed that understanding the human mind better will lead to individual and social progress.

My students were concerned about social issues and problems, but they hesitated to discuss them in terms of acknowledged inequalities of power and wealth and they all but refused to consider addressing them by altering collective social arrangements, apparently believing it would be futile to even try to do so. In short, the powers that be will be pleased to learn that although my students are unsettled about the way things are, and believe improvement is possible, they defer to the notion that we are at the "end of history".

Personal political preferences aside, I have always believed that although history and social science cannot tell us what to do, their pursuit should enable us to understand the world, to appreciate that the way things are is not necessarily the way they had to be or have to be, and to critically consider alternatives. I believe that my task as a professor of historical and social studies (and as a democratic intellectual) is to develop that historical knowledge and understanding of the world in my students. The most recent rendition of the Great Balloon Debate indicates my colleagues and I clearly have our work cut out for us.

Harvey J. Kaye is professor of social change and development at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.

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