Are Academics Pursuing a Cult of the Irrelevant?

June 14, 2019 Topic: Politics Region: Americas Tags: AcademiaTenurePoliticsSchoolsGroupthink

Are Academics Pursuing a Cult of the Irrelevant?

Michael Desch offers an illuminating survey of the century-long relationship between practitioners of U.S. foreign policy and the professors who study it.

Unfortunately, Desch observes, people who spend their twenties and thirties being initiated into a scholarly discipline are unlikely to question its validity, particularly when the economic and social rewards of tenure are at stake. Careerism will

lead many scholars who invest the time and intellectual capital in learning particularly sophisticated research techniques to amortize their investment by either choosing only questions amenable to them or forcing questions which are not into their template. Such an approach may occasionally address policy issues, but only in the way a broken clock tells the correct time twice a day.

Desch notes that the professionalization of political science as an academic discipline promotes groupthink and conformity: “One key mechanism through which disciplines become homogenous is through faculty hiring in which universities compete for the same group of leading scholars. Another mechanism is the process of academic peer review, which can foster ‘the homogenization of opinion.’” In the early 1960s, as a result of the adoption of peer review for articles published in the American Political Science Review, the percentage of articles using statistical analysis skyrocketed, while the percentage with policy recommendations, peaking immediately after World War II, plummeted to almost zero by the 1970s.

IN SPITE of his pessimistic analysis, Desch concludes his study by holding out hope that universities can be reformed to be of greater use to policymakers, including national security officials:

To change the current academic incentives that discourage relevance, reformers will also have to look outside their disciplinary guilds for allies; to higher-level university administrators and members of boards of trustees who tend to have broader visions than faculty in the disciplines; to government officials who need and can support policy relevant scholarship; and to the philanthropic community, the media, and the general public who presumably have an interest in the academy contributing more directly and consistently to the commonweal.

Well, one can always dream. The possibility that tenured professors (forget tenure-track professors and “non-tenure track” professors of practice) will reform their discipline by successfully going to war with their colleagues as part of an alliance of university trustees, government officials, foundation officers, the media and the general public seems pretty slight. Here Desch, a member of the realist school of international relations theory, is utopian. If, by his own account, the political scientists and economists who prefer to eschew policy relevance in order to reconstruct their disciplines as a parody of physics or other natural sciences have won the debate on campus and marginalized the humanist proponents of “qualitative” approaches in every generation since the 1920s, why would the positivists not continue to win indefinitely?

It was in order to supply the policy-relevant research and the cadres of government veterans and appointees that the war colleges, think tanks like Brookings and the Center for a New American Security, government contractors like RAND and, sometimes, public policy schools and lobbying firms, have moved into the space between the Ivory Tower and the Beltway. These institutions have flaws of their own—groupthink, partisanship, dependence on the whims or economic interests of donors or, in the case of the war colleges, the bureaucratic interests of their patron services. But for all of their faults, the war college-contractor-lobbyist-NGO-think tank complex is likely to continue to provide a more welcoming habitat than academic departments at research universities for America’s foreign policy mandarinate—or, if you prefer, America’s foreign policy nomenklatura.

If it is any consolation, academics who become influential policymakers like Brodie, Kissinger, Rostow and Brzezinski will no doubt continue to be remembered, long after the pedantic watchdogs of the disciplines who despised them have been forgotten.

Michael Lind is a contributing editor of the National Interest and a visiting professor at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Policy at the University of Texas at Austin.


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