Do Policy Schools Still Have a Point?

Classes started a couple of weeks ago, and I had a weird thought as the academic year began. I’ve spent most of my career teaching at schools of public policy (first at Princeton and later here at Harvard). These schools exist to prepare students for jobs in the public sector, although many graduates end up working in other capacities at some point in their careers. Was it possible, I wondered, that my faculty colleagues and I were imparting a body of knowledge and skills whose relevance would diminish rapidly in an era of accelerating change? Were we missing opportunities to help our students develop other capacities that might be of increasing value in tomorrow’s strange new world? Should the conventional approach to public policy pedagogy be reimagined, or at least given some serious tweaks? Having lived through several “curriculum reforms” in the past, I wondered if our efforts had gone far enough.

A bit of background. Public policy schools have been a growth industry in higher education for several decades. Although a handful of these programs can be traced back to before World War II, they’ve become increasingly popular and widespread in recent years. The Princeton School of Public and International Affairs, the Harvard Kennedy School, the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse, France’s École Nationale d’Administration, and a few others have been around for many decades, but the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago, Oxford’s Blavatnik School of Government, the Hertie School in Berlin, the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M, and many others are more recent creations.

These schools all have their own special qualities, but there are also some powerful similarities. Most of them try to impart certain basic analytical skills deemed necessary for the effective conduct of public policy, typically some combination of economics, statistics, political analysis, ethics, leadership training, and management. They also give students opportunities to acquire substantive expertise in particular policy domains (national security policy, local government, human rights, public finance, the environment, etc.), while developing their team-building, writing, and speaking skills and studying how the sausage gets made in different political systems.

Despite local variations, these programs all assume there is a body of academic knowledge that can help would-be public leaders understand the world in which they are operating and devise effective solutions to current and future public problems. And implicit in that assumption is the further belief that knowledge derived from past human experience will remain accurate and relevant for the new issues that will be coming down the pike. In short, the faculty who construct these programs typically think they have discovered enduring laws of human behavior (e.g., “supply and demand,” “the balance of power,” “collective goods theory,” etc.) that will continue to operate in the future much as they have done in the past. They also think that exposing students to past cases where leaders had to address some complex problem will provide lessons that will come in handy in the students’ future careers. Learn these tools and absorb these cases, and you’ll be ready for anything.

Or so we tend to think, but I wonder. What if we have entered a world that is being transformed in ways that make today’s knowledge less useful or relevant?

To be honest, I was surprised to find myself thinking along these lines. I’m generally skeptical of claims that the latest new development (the atom bomb, the multinational corporation, Big Tech, radical Islam, globalization, the human rights revolution, etc.) is going to transform the nature of politics and society and render past experiences obsolete. After all, political realism emphasizes the unchanging features of human nature and the continuities of historical experience; for realists, the most important features of political life (struggles for power, wars, alliances, the rise and fall of nations, misperceptions, etc.) keep recurring across time and space despite all of our efforts to minimize them. For the record, I think most of these enduring verities will remain useful, at least for a while.

But consider what is happening right before our eyes.

First, evidence for rapid and accelerating climate change is all around us, and efforts to slow and eventually reverse the burning of fossil fuels and other sources of greenhouse gases have been disappointing. The worst-case forecast of average global temperature rise looks increasingly likely, and this development is going to have profound effects on politics, migration, food production, water scarcity, biodiversity, and the frequency and intensity of floods, droughts, and other natural disasters. Human beings have adapted to shifts in Earth’s climate in the past, but they’ve never been forced to do so as rapidly and extensively as they will have to in the very near future.

Second, the development of increasingly powerful forms of artificial intelligence is disrupting a wide array of human activities and raising a host of uncomfortable questions for existing political institutions. I have no idea just how far-reaching these capabilities may become, but at this stage, neither does anyone else. But the potential to alter how some, if not all, human beings live—for good and ill—is enormous, and the pace of change could make the Industrial Revolution seem rather tame by comparison.

Third, as we have seen over the past several decades, the emergence of the smartphone and the pervasiveness of social media have transformed the world of politics and put new and unexpected strains on existing political institutions. Add to this toxic mix the arrival of AI and the potential for deepfakes, etc., and familiar notions of democratic accountability and public consensus begin to lose their footing. I’ve tended to think that existing political systems would eventually find ways to rein in these technologies and preserve our collective ability to separate truth from falsehood, but I wouldn’t bet my 401(k) on it.

Lastly, don’t forget the remarkable revolution in biology, health, and longevity research that is now underway, a trend likely to be accelerated by new AI tools. As we begin to grasp the mechanisms of aging and disease and devise ways to slow, reverse, or counter them, it is likely that some—maybe millions—of humans will start living much longer lives than they do at present. Gene editing and other techniques will create the possibility of customizing future generations, raising all sorts of uncomfortable moral and political questions. Humans have altered planetary biology in a number of ways in the past, but our capacity to do so deliberately is increasing rapidly.

Put all these trends (and others) together, and you have the potential for nonlinear changes whose ultimate impact is impossible to predict with confidence. And these momentous developments are all happening rapidly and at the same time: It’s beginning to look like a real-world version of Everything Everywhere All at Once. If that’s the case, today’s public policy students may be equipped with a toolkit that is ill-suited for the issues they are going to face in a few years.

Here’s what I mean. What if we are headed toward a world where AI and other technological developments create far-reaching market disruptions more or less constantly, but on a scale we haven’t seen before? Just look at what some new diet drugs (e.g., Ozempic) are doing to the whole diet industry. What if a changing climate makes jet travel prohibitively expensive, environmentally unsustainable, or just too dangerous due to increasing atmospheric turbulence? What if large areas of the planet—currently home to tens of millions of people—become uninhabitable? Are we ready for the day when the satellites on which global communications depend are taken out by a cascading collision of space junk, a malevolent hacker, or the deliberate action of a hostile power? Do you even remember how you used to do things in the pre-digital age? And what if the political effects of all these developments disrupt familiar modes of governance, long-standing alliance commitments, patterns of economic dependence, and the institutional features that have largely determined global politics for the past 75 years or more?

My point is that in a world of increasingly rapid and interconnected disruption, some of the familiar verities, principles, and practices that we’ve taken for granted (and confidently taught to our students) may not be all that helpful. In these circumstances, what will matter is a leader’s ability to adapt, to jettison old ideas, to discriminate between sound science and snake oil, and to invent new ways of meeting public needs. Teaching students how things worked in the past, and instilling timeless truths derived from earlier epochs may not be that helpful—it might even be counterproductive.

Am I proposing that we toss out the current curriculum, stop teaching microeconomics, democratic theory, public accounting, econometrics, foreign policy, applied ethics, history, or any of the other building blocks of today’s public policy curriculum? Not yet. But we ought to devote more time and effort to preparing them for a world that is going to be radically different from the one we’ve known in the past—and sooner than they think.

I have three modest proposals.

First, and somewhat paradoxically, the prospect of radical change highlights the importance of basic theories. Empirical patterns derived from past experience (e.g., “democracies don’t fight each other”) may be of little value if the political and social conditions under which those laws were discovered no longer exist. To make sense of radically new circumstances, we will have to rely on causal explanations (i.e., theories) to help us foresee what is likely to occur and to anticipate the results of different policy choices. Knowledge derived from simplistic hypothesis testing or simple historical analogies will be less useful than rigorous and refined theories that tell us what’s causing what and help us understand the effects of different actions. Even more sophisticated efforts to teach “applied history” will fail if past events are not properly interpreted. The past never speaks to us directly; all historical interpretation is in some sense dependent on the theories or frameworks that we bring to these events. We need to know not just what happened in some earlier moment; we need to understand why it happened as it did and whether similar causal forces are at work today. Providing a causal explanation requires theory.

At the same time, some of our existing theories will need to be revised (or even abandoned), and new ones may need to be invented. We cannot escape reliance on some sort of theory, but rigid and uncritical adherence to a particular worldview can be just as dangerous as trying to operate solely with one’s gut instincts. For this reason, public policy schools should expose students to a wider range of theoretical approaches than they currently do and teach students how to think critically about them and to identify their limitations along with their strengths.

To prepare students for a rapidly changing world, we should teach historical cases where the prevailing theories led to bad policy choices, and where new ones had to be devised to address a novel set of circumstances. The development of Keynesian economics in the 1930s or the refinement of deterrence theory throughout the Cold War might be instructive examples in this regard. We should also look for cases where policymakers failed because they clung to ideas and policies that were no longer working, and contrast them with cases where other leaders improvised and innovated rapidly and successfully.

Lastly, we (or do I just mean I?) should be more creative in devising exercises and assignments that require students to adapt, improvise, and operate outside the frames of reference or working conditions that they tend to take for granted. For instance, one could divide students into teams and give them all a common assignment, but with the proviso that they had to complete it without using any type of electronic device. No laptops, tablets, smartphones, Google searches, etc.; not even the online card catalog at the university library. How would students at a modern elite university do their work if they had nothing to rely on but a manual typewriter, pens and pencils, and some paper? It is entirely possible that these students would have to work that way in a future emergency; such an exercise would highlight the importance of being able to adapt and solve problems on the fly.

Or we could ask students to imagine plausible but radically different worlds and identify what their main features would be and how these new conditions should be addressed. How would or should the United States, Russia, Germany, Estonia, China, Saudi Arabia, etc., react if NATO dissolved or the United Nations collapsed? What policy choices would they recommend if the scientific community reversed itself completely and concluded today’s climate change was entirely natural and human activity had almost no effect on it? (To be clear: I’m not suggesting for a second that this is a realistic possibility.) I’d also like to find more ways to get students to argue against their own cherished beliefs, not for the purpose of changing their minds but in order to encourage a healthy skepticism about one’s beliefs and a greater capacity to evaluate arguments that seem persuasive on first listen.

As you can undoubtedly tell, I’m still feeling my way through these issues, and my suggestions are tentative. I’m going to keep thinking about them, however, and I’ll be interested to see what my colleagues (and my students) have to say about them. Schools of public policy have become more popular for several reasons, but that success doesn’t mean we can’t improve what we are offering our students. Given what will be coming at us in a very short while, we’re going to need to.

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