Stephen M. Walt

The cult of irrelevance

A year or so ago, I read a news story where a well-known IR scholar explained the silence of many academics about the Iraq war by saying that "I don’t think all the academics in the world could have had much impact on American public opinion…I don’t think academics matter." Even if true in this ...

A year or so ago, I read a news story where a well-known IR scholar explained the silence of many academics about the Iraq war by saying that "I don’t think all the academics in the world could have had much impact on American public opinion…I don’t think academics matter."

Even if true in this particular case, this is a self-fulfilling world-view. If you basically believe that what scholars write and say doesn’t really matter for major national policy decisions, you’re unlikely to write or say anything that might actually shape those decisions. And for many academics, that’s ok with them.

As Laura Rozen noted earlier this week, my colleague Joseph Nye offered a candid and critical assessment of the growing gap between academia and the policy world in a Washington Post column on Monday. Joe’s own career demonstrates that it is still possible combine serious scholarship, government service, academic leadership, and public commentary, but his warnings that this combination is becoming rarer is almost certainly correct.  Michael Desch makes some related points in a recent article in Notre Dame Magazine, noting that the policy world is increasingly indifferent (or hostile) to academic advice. Together, the portrait they paint is more than a little disturbing.

My own views on this subject can be found in a longer essay in the Annual Review of Political Science. Here I’ll just note two points. First, the prevailing "cult of irrelevance" in much of academia is both regrettable and irresponsible. Our society permits many academics to live pretty comfortable lives, particularly once they have tenure. And let’s not forget that tenure isn’t granted to allow a life-time of self-indulgent scholarship, but to allow scholars to take risks in their research and to confront controversial subjects without fear of coercion. In exchange for job security, a decent living and a high level of intellectual autonomy, our fellow citizens have a right to expect us to take our teaching responsibilities seriously and to use our knowledge to address serious issues. For political scientists, that ought to mean using our knowledge to address important matters of concern in the real world, and to contribute to the broader public discourse on these topics. That doesn’t mean we should spend our days writing op-eds (or blogs!), but neither does it mean that we should studiously avoid any engagement with controversial real-world topics. 

Yet a surprising number of my fellow scholars seem to hold the opposite view. Either they try to cut deals to keep their teaching to a minimum or they devote vast amounts of time to researching topics that are of interest only to a handful of their fellow scholars. Even worse, anyone who does engage the real world gets derided for doing "policy analysis" and younger scholars who show an interest in this sort of activity are less likely to be taken seriously and less like to rise within the profession. What sort of incentive structure is that?  

Second, this "cult of irrelevance" is not a law of nature. As I wrote in the Annual Review essay:

Scholars naturally respond to incentives, and the incentive structure today discourages . . .a concern with policy relevance.  But the norms that establish these professional incentives are not divinely ordained; they are collectively determined by the members of the discipline itself. The scholarly community gets to decide what it values, and there is no reason why policy relevance cannot be elevated in our collective estimation, along with the traditional criteria of creativity, rigor, and empirical validity."

What would this mean in practice? First, as Nye points out, academic departments could give greater weight to real-world relevance and impact in hiring and promotion decisions. When evaluating job candidates, or when considering someone for tenure, reviewers and evaluation committees could be asked to explicitly consider what contribution a scholar’s work has made to the solving of a genuine real-world problems. Second, departments could also allow junior faculty to "stop the tenure clock" during a public service leave (as we do here at the Kennedy School), a policy might improve their subsequent research and make them better teachers to boot. Third, editors of academic journals could give greater weight to policy-relevance in evaluating submissions, and professional organizations should create outlets (akin to the Journal of Economic Perspectives), designed to make cutting-edge research accessible to policymakers (or at least their staffs). 

After all, should scholars in the Ivory Tower really be proud that so few people care about what we have to say? 

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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