Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Academics and policy; Joseph Nye notes a lack of relevance

Joseph Nye, a former dean of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, writes in HuffPo one of those occasional posts that bemoan the lack of connection between academics and policy (the original OpEd piece is in the WaPo).

This has been a problem for how long now? Years, decades, centuries? Apparently the isolation of the ivory tower is getting worse. No doubt. I am familiar with this dilemma. I spent a fair amount of time and energy as an undergrad wondering if and how my philosophy degree would be relevant to real change in the real world. When I asked my philosophy professors about this, they seemed surprised by the question, as if it hadn't occurred to them. You would think that philosophy professors - of all people - would spend some time thinking about the meaning of their profession.

Nye cites a few trends/suspects for this widening gulf. Mostly, it's because once you're in the academy, you pay more attention to staying in the academy, and less attention to the outside world. Professional advancement within academia depends on impressing other people who are also within it, not the people outside.

That's probably true, but I lay the blame squarely on one facet of academia: tenure. There is one crucial difference between people in academia and people who are actually developing policy in the real world. That difference is that people in the real world are held accountable for how their ideas affect people, and academics are not. People in the real world have to deal with the consequences of their ideas. People in academia do not have to deal with those consequences. People in the real world can be fired if they screw up. People with tenure cannot be fired. If you can be fired because your ideas are wrong, you pay close attention to making sure your ideas are right, which means changing them when those ideas turn out to be wrong. If you are immune from being fired, you have no incentive to paying attention to how your ideas work in the real world. You can be wrong forever, and not pay any price.

This becomes self-perpetuating, because people who want their ideas to be relevant will work for organizations where their ideas will be relevant; think tanks, legislatures, newspapers, magazines, blogs, etc. Andrew Sullivan and Josh Marshall both have Ph.d.'s from Ivy League universities. People who are not as concerned about their relevance will tend to gravitate towards academia, where they can argue amongst themselves to their mutual hearts' content.

I should point out that this applies mostly to the humanities and social sciences. Academics in math, engineering, and the hard sciences are held accountable by their experiments. If a physicists' experiments don't work, he or she has to change his or her mind. I should also point out that my critique is aimed at higher education; I have much more respect for teachers in elementary and high school, who have the very difficult job of teaching. I have a lot of respect for teachers. I'm not a big fan of tenure at that level, either, but I don't think it has the same corrosive effect it does in higher education.

I had an argument about this with a friend who is an academic. My position was that academics are not relevant to society. He came back with "But you're assuming that they should be." To him, whether or not academics are relevant to social change or society in any respect is not an important question. This is a guy who minored in Latin and read ancient Roman poets for fun. He's perfectly happy going to conferences and teaching undergrads. Which is great. We need people to do whatever work he is doing, and I'm sure he does it quite well. The fact that he's perfectly happy with his job has a value in and of itself.

One thing that has changed very dramatically that Nye doesn't seem to notice is that there are vastly more opportunities today for people who are very smart and interested in ideas and want to see those ideas change society for the better. Andrew Sullivan and Josh Marshall are both making a living as bloggers. They both have an impact on politics. There was a time when colleges and universities were bastions of enlightened and progressive thinking, and if you wanted to hang out with smart people, that's where you went. That is no longer the case. So people who want their ideas to be relevant have options that they didn't have even 10 years ago. Which means, of course, that they have even less incentive to go into academia. Previously, they may have gone back and forth between academia and government, as Nye himself did. Now they can just leave academia with their Ph.d.'s and never look back.

I'm not as worried about this as I used to be. If people want to go into academia and argue about absurdly esoteric topics, fine with me. When I think of these people, I am reminded of the description of the earth in the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy: "Mostly harmless." Every society has people who are smart but confused and misguided. Successful societies come up with a way to deal with these people that keeps them from ruining life for the rest of us. That's one purpose of tenure: academia has become a holding pen for people who are really smart, but basically wrong. As long as they stay there, they are mostly harmless. The rest of us should basically ignore them. This was what went wrong with the Ward Churchill fiasco: people actually started paying attention to him, and he became relevant and then controversial. If we had all ignored him, he would have stayed mostly harmless and basically irrelevant. I say "mostly harmless" because, of course, as an academic, he is teaching students, some of whom might actually take him seriously. This is an unfortunate side effect, but it is tampered by the fact that most students grow out of what they believe in college. It's like the other Churchill (the more quotable one) said: "If a man is not a Marxist at 20, he has no heart. If he is still a Marxist at 40, he has no brain." I'm actually not really sure if that's from Churchill, but it sounds good. And since I'm not an academic, I'm not going to worry about the historical accuracy of my citation. Because, as Oscar Wilde wrote, "Truth is absolutely and completely a matter of style." Not sure about the accuracy of that quote, either, but I think it sounds just as good as the one from Churchill.

For now, then, I'm not going to worry about whether or not there are enough academics in the Obama administration. That's because I am going to judge the Obama administration on whether or not they get the job done. They are held accountable on a daily, if not hourly, basis. Which is why I have much more respect for them than I do for academics.

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