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More on the Terminal MA

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PTJ has some additional thoughts, and Dan Drezner weighs in here.

To respond in some detail, I’m deeply uncomfortable with the wall that PTJ wants to erect between scholarship and policy. It’s true enough that studying baseball isn’t playing baseball, but it seems absurd to me to claim that the study of baseball hasn’t informed the practice of baseball, and to good effect. Scholarship about world politics is not about “doing” world politics, but it appears that the claim PTJ wants to make is that those who “do” world politics can learn nothing from IR scholarship. Indeed, he claims that such learning might actually make policy worse. That’s true enough as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go very far; policy professionals have to be educated in some fashion, and erecting a wall between professional scholarship and the instruction of policy professionals makes no sense to me. I’ll also confess that I find a lot of PTJ’s writing on this question very dense, and may have misinterpreted his argument.

Perhaps I’ve become a bit cynical about political science as a discipline, but I’m not convinced that political science as PTJ wants to describe it actually exists. I understand where he’s going in his discussion of ideal types, but I find it an almost useless way of thinking about the relationship between policy and political science. On the one hand, I’m far from convinced that much of anything that the modern discipline of political science does conforms at all with PTJ’s door#2; as such, it’s hard for me to attribute much value to holding political science apart from policy. On the other, I find PTJ’s door#1 description a bit ridiculous; no one at a terminal MA program teaches realism or neoliberal institutionalism because we want our students to go out and produce a realist or neoliberal world. Rather, we teach it in order that students will have some familiarity with the debates going on in both the policy and scholarly worlds, and that they’ll have the ability at some point to interpret the scholarly advice that even PTJ allows should be given. In short, I think it’s absurd to suggest that teaching Robert Keohane in a grad level policy seminar leads to the Terror. I don’t want to claim that teaching Keohane (or Waltz, for that matter) is harmless, but I can’t believe that we want our policymakers to have *less* theoretical grasp rather than more.

To tie this back to MAs and practitioners: if I want to go into the practice of world politics, I want to learn how to make policy decisions. If I am teaching someone who wants to go into the practice of world politics, I want to give them a sense of the irresolvable dilemmas that they are going to face, and help them to develop a critical disposition that can help them grapple with those dilemmas. None of this has anything whatsoever to do with the systematic results of my scholarly investigations into anything; it has to do with exercises designed to clarify value-commitments and their implications.

I just don’t understand this at all; why wouldn’t the results of scholarly investigations be relevant to the training of policymakers?

If, on the other hand, I am advising policymakers, I probably want to present my results but then realize that it is not my job to make the tough decisions surrounding their implementation (as Weber said, politics is the slow boring of hard boards) and leave that to the policymakers. But that’s not teaching students, it’s offering a scholarly input to a policymaking process that a scholar has to remain independent of lest she or he compromise her or his detachment and turn into a partisan for one or another group or party (and thus, by definition, no longer be engaged in doing scholarship).

Why wouldn’t it be better if the policymakers in question had some theoretical training, such that they could, on their own, evaluate elements of the claims that the scholars are making? This IS teaching students; it’s teaching students to be better, more critical policymakers.

1)I still don’t see the intellectual point of a terminal MA because, contra Doug, I don’t see those classes at operating at a level any higher than what one finds in undergrad. In fact, I teach my MA theory course like I taught my undergraduate theory classes: we read Hobbes, Locke, etc., and talk through their arguments and implications thereof. Precisely what I did and do for undergrads. So from my perspective a terminal MA in IR looks like more undergrad plus a few “policy” classes (talk about some issues, generally in a completely a-theoretical way) and some “methods” classes (basic stats — which they probably had in undergrad already anyway — and sometimes “risk analysis,” which to a social scientist like myself just looks like bad research design and flawed data analysis). Yes, I get that this helps people get jobs. What I don’t get is why it helps people get jobs, and what people think that a graduate of such a program can possibly do that a well-educated undergrad can’t already do.

I suppose that a retreat into the empirical data is in order; government agencies, NGOs, and private companies come to Patterson (and presumably to other MA programs) to recruit our students, and demonstrate a clear preference for our students over similarly situated undergraduates. Members of these organizations have expressed to us that there is a clear and obvious difference in the performance of students with MAs and those without, and they prefer the former. Now, it’s possible that they’re just wrong, or that their assessment is biased, or that they’re telling us what we want to hear, but given how often I hear the same thing, I have my doubts. Moreover, I’m not sure what’s wrong with the idea that an MA should be an extension of an undergraduate degree, rather than a project dedicated to bringing students to a higher intellectual level. A terminal MA student in a program like ours receives one and a half to two years more training than a BA, and this training is both more rigorous and more specialized than that found in BA programs. I’m not sure why PTJ thinks that an MA should represent a qualitative rather than a quantitative change in a student; we like to think that a Ph.D. makes a qualitative difference (we like to think that), but it’s unclear to me why we should think about an MA in the same fashion. Students getting MBAs learn stuff that’s pretty much like what they learned in undergrad, if they were business majors; I don’t understand why policy should be thought about any differently.

3) I pity the student who comes to me hoping to be trained in job-relevant skills if their anticipated job is someplace other than academia. Academia is where I work, and I know how to do that job pretty well, so I can pass on bits of practical advice and professional wisdom. The State Department? I can find it on a map, but I’ve never worked there and have no desire to do so, so I am not likely to be of any use to students looking to be trained in how to succeed at State (or in any other DC institution).

I’m a bit appalled by the logic of this argument; if as academics we only have knowledge relevant to work in the academy, then our capacity to make any contribution to the training/education of any of our students (including undergrads) is rather trivial. I happy to acknowledge that I can’t “train” anyone to have a successful career at the State Department, but I can certainly make educated guesses as to what skills will be needed in such work, educated guesses which are in large part informed by what State Department personnel tell me.

To put it more directly, I know a lot about aircraft carriers; not as much as someone who has served on one, but a fair amount. I’m deeply convinced that students interested in policy (as well as you, Gentle Reader) ought to know more about aircraft carriers; it would be a better world if both our policymakers and our voters understood what an aircraft carrier is, does, costs, etc. I talk about aircraft carriers during my defense statecraft course, and because of my own theoretical training (and my scholarly investigations) I can situate with aircraft carrier within a variety of different theoretical perspectives, which is something that most people who have served on aircraft carriers cannot. Moreover, because I spend time in my courses giving students a basic theoretical foundation (this is Realism, etc.) they can understand this situation, disagree with it, question it, etc. Because I know that the students are interested in international affairs (I don’t know the same about undergraduates), and because I know they possess a certain level of basic academic skills (I also don’t know this about undergraduates), I can challenge the students with more difficult material and more pressing questions than I would otherwise be able to. It’s also worth noting that this kind of course is utterly unlike what one would find in a standard political science program; such a course might produce some ideas for scholarly research, but in general will be far too empirical for the taste of most Ph.D. students.

As a last note, I should say that I’m very happy that my school does not have a Ph.D. program. I think it would be enormously difficult trying to figure out in each new cohort which students I should pay attention to (because they’ll be around for six years) and which I shouldn’t (because they’ll be gone in two). It seems to me that does a disservice to both groups, but especially the latter. I do enjoy dealing with the occasionally Ph.D. student who wanders down from political science, but that’s different than having a course made up of the two different communities.

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