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Should history, as a discipline, be classified under “humanities” or “social science?”

I’m sort of amazed that in the decade-plus that I’ve been writing this column, I’ve never asked the question directly of my wise and worldly readers. It’s worth asking.

It matters because of distribution requirements. Different types of degrees -- AA as opposed to AS as opposed to AAS -- require different distributions of credits in the various categories. The “distribution requirement” model of general education is out of favor among reformers, but it’s still very much alive on the ground, as students who don’t check the boxes before trying to transfer can attest.  

In New Jersey, the state has answered the either/or question with a firm “yes.”  In the context of AA degrees, it can count for either, and it even gets its own category.  But in AS and AAS degrees, it doesn’t. And that begs the question of whether the state got it right, which is, to me, the much more interesting question.

At Holyoke, it counted as a humanities course, but it was housed in social sciences.  At CCM and Brookdale, it’s housed in social sciences, but it can count for either. It’s the “and sometimes “Y’” of academic disciplines.

I’ll admit that if I had to make the call, I’d put it in social sciences. Part of that is because of its role as the parent of political science, which clearly belongs there, but mostly it’s because I tend to think of the division between the two camps as “social-fact-bound” versus “social-fact-optional.”  Fiction, of course, is fact-optional by definition. Music, art, and the performing arts are clearly fact-optional. History is not. (Political science is not, but politics clearly is.) Here I use “social fact’ as distinct from “natural fact,” which I consider a calling card of STEM.

Obviously, the distinction is pretty crude, and doesn’t work for everything. Foreign-language study, for instance, is not fact-optional, as I discovered while struggling through Russian vocabulary quizzes. But upper-level language courses often move into literature, where facts are, once again, optional. (I admit without prompting that this is a weak argument.) Communications is a tricky one, too, because “rhetoric” is classically humanist, but much of modern communications work comes much closer to sociology than to literature.  At least at the cc level, though, the bulk of the courses there are “Public Speaking,” which comes close enough to Theater that I’m okay with the humanities designation.

Philosophy is a tricky one, too.  It’s not primarily about “facts,” in the sense that most people use the word.  (I refuse to get drawn into arguments with analytic philosophers about what ‘facts” are, on the grounds that life is too short.)  I personally divide it into “political philosophy” and “everything else,” with the former in social science and the rest in humanities, but I’ll admit that not everybody sees it that way.  Arguments about socialism and classical liberalism strike me as more fact-bound than, say, arguments about the nature of existence. Ethics sits right on the border.

At a conceptual level, of course, the distinction is arbitrary.  But as a practical matter, credits get sorted into buckets, and you can have only so many in any given bucket before the rest get dumped out.  For transfer purposes, the question matters. The pragmatist in me can concede that the categories are artificial, but they’re the coin of the realm, and I want my students’ currency honored in exchange.  We have only so many credits in a degree, and only so many credits in each category. Credits that don’t fall into a category don’t count.

So, wise and worldly readers, I look to you. If you had to put “history” (as a discipline) in one bucket or the other, which bucket would you pick, and why?

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