Saturday, August 30, 2008

Peak Political Science?

I am in Boston attending the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association. Each year it seems new attendance records are broken as more and more political scientists descend on the host city to attend panels, present papers and schmooze. This year the Association brags that over 7,000 political scientists have descended upon this spot. Its growth is drawn not only from the thousands of colleges and universities in America, but from scholars around the world.

The fact of ever greater growth means, of course, that there was a time when fewer political scientists attended this particular meeting. I suspect that many political scientists were apt rather to attend their local regional meetings rather than the Annual Conference. As air travel and the travel industry has flourished in the late-twentieth century, the Annual Meeting is just as easy to attend as a trip by car or train to a local gathering place of the State or Regional association. Simultaneously, as travel budgets have begun to be cut back (particularly at State universities, which are perpetually underfunded), political scientists have had to decide where to take their one trip per year. Many have elected to eschew their local conference gathering in favor of the national conference. It is at the national meetings where much networking is done (a large APSA banner in the convention center reads "Networking a World of Scholars") and, in some cases, careers are advanced. Limited slots for panels have made it increasingly difficult for graduate students to have the opportunity to present work at the national conference. In turn, the regional conferences have increasingly become the places where graduate students ply their wares in the hopes of someday getting their break in the big leagues of the APSA.

But I speculate that this year or very soon, we will see the peak attendance at the national meeting. As airfare prices rise, it will simply become unfeasible for academics to travel to far flung cities; at the same time, there will come the realization that the local and regional conferences are far more affordable and accessible. Already, with the shuttering of hundreds of planes and the downsizing of the airlines, it is becoming increasingly difficult to fly out of many smaller airports. Academics, like everyone else, are going to be more apt to stay closer to home.

At the same time, don't be surprised to see a reversal of the growth of the academic industry that defined academia since the post-WW II era. Coming years will see decreases in student enrollments, an inevitability portended by demographics and exacerbated the personal finances of Americans who will be unable to afford college in its present form. With the shrinking economy (and the shrinking of stock markets), endowments will decrease and fewer faculty will be needed or affordable. I think we can expect to see many schools shrinking to their 19th-century form or shuttering altogether. For many families, college will return to being a luxury for the class of citizens who will work as lawyers, doctors, ministers, etc. For most, learning a craft or trade will be a requisite, and apprenticeships will return as a noble form of learning.

In sum, as I wander the cavernous conference center teeming with political scientists from every corner of the nation and the world, all purportedly "advancing knowledge" in a discipline that has yet to predict one significant political occurrence (putting to lie its purported claims to be a "science"), I begin imagining what this conference will look like in a decade's time. Most would assume it will continue to grow as this association, like all of its kind, becomes more interconnected and global. But I'd be willing to bet that in a decade we will be amazed that it was once as large as it was, that the world seemed to be so small, and that most of its denizens so easily assumed the inevitability of a globalized future. They will discuss their amazement with nearby colleagues at local and regional meetings, and we will not be the worse for it.

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