Monday, September 17, 2012

Why Teach "The Clash of Civilizations"?

. Monday, September 17, 2012

Phil Arena says we shouldn't, because it's not very good:

When folks like me joke that Huntington's CoC has detracted from the sum total of human knowledge, that it shouldn't even be taught in Intro IR classes because exposing students to it does more harm than good, it's the part I'm about to turn to that we have in mind more so than his claim that economic globalization has shrunk the world, or that economic integration has proceeded more rapidly at the regional level than the global level, or that dictators in the Islamic world might be threatened by the degree to which young people in their countries embraced American pop culture.

No, the big problem here is that Huntington claims that identity is immutable (even though some aspects of his argument clearly imply the opposite!). The fundamental problem with any argument linking ideational cleavages with conflict is that identity is malleable, and we have just as much evidence that conflict -> identity cleavages as we do identity cleavages -> conflict.
Characteristically, Phil cites some literature and goes into detail explaining just why he thinks this aspect of Huntington's argument, and others, is bogus.

I just taught "The Clash of Civilizations" in class today. I agree with every criticism Phil made of the article, and could add several others too. So do I feel chastised? No. Here's why:

1. We need to teach "The Clash of Civilizations" because it's a terrible argument with no supporting evidence. That is, it is an object lesson in how not to think about global politics. It presents us with an 'in' to many issues of interest to us, including the one that Phil mentions -- identity is not immutable -- and is a good foil for alternative explanations of the ways global politics works. Because Huntington makes predictions which can be called into question empirically, it provides us with an opportunity to present an empirical depiction of the world as it actually is. Because we're examining claims with evidence, it gives us a good way to teach students how political scientists approach questions of interest.

2. We need to teach "The Clash of Civilizations" because everyone else is. Not just other political science classes, but sociology classes, global studies classes, etc. Because many of our students will encounter this idea in an academic setting either way, we should teach it in a way that provides them with good frameworks for rejecting it.

3. We need to teach "The Clash of Civilizations" because it is our job to give students a sense of the intellectual trajectory of political theory related to the study of international relations. I always assign "The Clash of Civilizations" along with "The End of History," not just because the two speak directly to each other, but also to give students a sense of how the end of Cold War begat a period of intellectual confusion that (I think) largely persists into the present.

4. We need to teach "The Clash of Civilizations" because it is frequently referenced by the popular media, by policymakers, and by lay-people. For whatever reason, the argument has traction in the broader culture. Many seem to find it intuitively appealing; I suspect that it reinforces some peoples' priors. In any case, if our students go home for Thanksgiving Break and a family member finds out that they're taking a course on international relations and asks them what they think of "The Clash of Civilizations" I want them to have an answer.

5. We need to teach "The Clash of Civilizations" because foreign policy discourse is frequently conducted in very crude "Us vs. Them" terms, and this provides us with an opportunity to question that entire mode of thought. Or at least to problematize exactly what we mean by "Us" and "Them": are these things defined by material interest? Identity? Ideals?

6. Finally, I think we need to teach "The Clash of Civilizations" because students seem to respond strongly to it, one way or the other. It is one of the few readings I routinely assign where this is the case.  It is, I think, something of a gateway drug: students either like it or don't like it, but they often aren't quite sure why. Teaching the article gives us a jumping-off point which we can use to engage many of the key concepts that will be developed in an introductory course.


Why Teach "The Clash of Civilizations"?

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