by Kyle Schnoebelen
Don’t go to policy school. It is a hopelessly academic silo of idealism – brick-and-mortar manifestations of the outdated notion that “bigger government was better government.” People Who Actually Matter summarily ignore policy professors. And don’t even start on the students, who think themselves too good for local government, preferring to spend their days whining about social injustice and debating what it means to be a citizen of the world. At least, don’t go if you subscribe to the above view, recently presented in the Washington Post’s Outlook section by James Piereson of the Manhattan Institute’s Center for the American University and Naomi Schaefer Riley, a former blogger at the Chronicle of Higher Education.
The pair present a depressing assessment of the state of public policy education, lamenting that policy schools are no longer useful because they aren’t “preparing their graduates to fix all that needs fixing.” They’re correct, in a sense. It would be surprising to find a school in any discipline that claims to endow graduates with the ability to “fix” every relevant issue in its field. If the authors expect this of policy grads, well, that goes a long way towards explaining their disappointment.
Dismissing policy schools because graduates are not immediately capable of solving “all that needs fixing” is akin to calling medical schools useless because young MD’s have yet to cure pancreatic cancer or Alzheimer’s. No Kennedy School MPP has simultaneously made trash collection more efficient in Cambridge, eradicated poverty in Massachusetts, and protected U.S. intellectual property in China. So, game over. If waving a diploma at problems and hoping they go away isn’t working, the entire discipline must be useless.
Similarly shortsighted is Piereson and Riley’s gripe that work produced by policy academics is “less and less” accessible. Ideas, even influential ones, often lay dormant for years before circumstance makes them relevant. Healthcare scholars at the Heritage Foundation are well aware of this reality. But no matter – if only today’s ivory-tower inhabitants were less elitist, we could return to the good ol’ days when Chicago economists printed their findings on the backs of cereal boxes. I’d forgotten that James Q. Wilson developed his broken windows theory in a series of one-page blog posts.
Perhaps the observation that academic findings aren’t relevant to “actual” policymakers isn’t a reflection of quality, but a condemnation of those who focus on 30-second sound bytes. There are challenges in communicating nuance, especially to time-strapped lawmakers, who frequently ingest recommendations based on complex research findings in the form of brief elevator pitches. This presents a major obstacle, sure, but it does not warrant limiting research to the easily accessible. The average congressman isn’t an anthropologist or religious studies expert. Ask yourself: would the United States be better or worse off today if the relevant policymakers had taken more time to understand the Iraqi cultural landscape before invading in 2003?
Clichés of academics as out-of-touch dreamers are generally as harmless as they are tired. But professors, according to Piereson and Reilly, are not the only problem. Students drawn to public policy focus their attention on multifaceted, challenging issues, which apparently makes us insufferably self-important. Our predisposition creates ambition – the source of the alleged “sense of grandiosity” permeating policy schools from Berkeley to Charlottesville. This criticism of students for their focus on the big, consequential problems is both misguided and dangerous.
Piereson and Reilly ask, rhetorically, “what can policy professors and graduates possibly accomplish?” Fair question. Solutions are useless without the means to implement them, and students of public policy must be adept at finding those avenues. However, there is something cheap and cynical in simultaneously dismissing policy schools as unable to address complex issues and deriding their professors and students as ‘grandiose’ for attempting to do so in the first place. Climate change, cyclical poverty, bureaucratic inefficiency, unsustainable debt – can policy schools across the U.S. generate all, or even some, of the answers? And if they do, will the work of professors and newly minted MPP’s or MPA’s make a significant difference? Who knows, but historians waste no ink recounting the efforts of those who did not bother to try.
Policy schools should strive to produce what Thomas Jefferson referred to as “useful knowledge.” The authors are correct in their assertion that plenty of local and state problems warrant students’ time and effort alongside the so-called ‘big picture’ issues. But academic institutions devoted to developing substantive policy solutions, whatever their shortcomings, are more valuable than groups producing easily communicable but substantively bankrupt critiques. No need to recount the long list of policy school alumni who have made an enormously positive impact on the world, or the many scholars currently engaged in rigorous, critical research on issues spanning from local to international. Something more basic – about a man and an arena – comes to mind. Then again, whoever wrote those lines probably suffered from an outsized sense of grandiosity.
Kyle Schnoebelen serves as the Content Director of the Virginia Policy Review and its associated blog, The Third Rail. He is a second year masters candidate at the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, and graduated from the University of Virginia in 2013 with a degree in history.