The Duck of Minerva

Certifying idealism

5 November 2007

Unlike Dan, I’m not on self-imposed blogging hiatus as much as I am operating on a much different blogging rhythm these days — in part because I’m now a half-time administrator running the General Education Program at my university, in part because I’m trying to write a couple of books, etc. But also in part because a lot of what I would have to say about contemporary world politics at the moment would be less articulate analysis and more flabbergasted exasperation, and how many entries called “WTF?!?!?” could I realistically post? I suspect that this latter will change eventually, but for now I’m kind of operating in a mode of posting only when something really grabs me in an extraordinary manner.

And here we have something that grabbed me: a front-page story about the bleak job market prospects for professional public service workers, especially those looking for NGO work. But what grabbed me was not the information about the relative glut of applicants for public interest positions, or what the author of the piece euphemistically refers to as the “improvisational and protracted career track” of would-be public interest workers. Maybe these were new facts for some, but since I live so close to this world I hear about those things all the time — often from my students, who are experiencing those precise difficulties. No, what really got me was the statement that the subject of the article had tried to “certify her idealism” by getting an MA in international relations from an institution in Washington DC that is not the one I teach at (but might as well have been).

Certifying idealism. What a terrible idea. Three things strike me as deeply problematic about the notion:

1) the fact that the phrase is internally contradictory. If you’re an idealist, a genuine idealist, then you don’t need to be “certified” — the ideal itself to which you adhere is, or ought to be, all the certification that you need. Otherwise you’re not an idealist; you’re someone who is using an ideal instrumentally. And this, of course, makes you a politician rather than a moralist, and makes the certification into a political resource that has less to do with any ideal and more to do with the pursuit of power and influence.

2) the fact that a terminal MA in international relations is regarded as a “certification.” I have to admit that at some level I simply do not understand the idea of a terminal MA degree in international relations, although I teach in a policy school that awards large numbers of them every year. I do not understand what is supposed to be gained through the course of study that most MA students engage in, since they don’t do enough coursework to develop a real scholarly grasp of the field (or even of their specialized portion of it) and at least in my experience they generally don’t do enough concrete skills-training to really develop themselves as competent professionals (and when they do, it comes in their internships rather than in the classroom, which is what virtually any MA in international relations will tell you if you ask them where they learned the most during their graduate school experiences). So as far as I can tell it is largely a certification and networking exercise, and an expensive one at that.

When I teach and work with MA students I am generally looking for those students who really wanted a Ph.D. but perhaps didn’t know it yet. Either that or I am looking for those rare MA students who are actually interested in scholarship as a vocation. This is both because I don’t know what I have to specifically offer the young professional who is primarily interested in learning a thing or three about transnational crime or the Balkans or whatever and then going out to work for some NGO (my rolodex is not really all that filled with people who work for consulting firms and policy institutes in downtown Coruscant), and partially because as a professor I largely only have one thing to offer to anyone: I press people to clarify their arguments and to take the implications of their commitments more seriously. Period. In my experience a very small minority of MA students find this helpful, and I primarily work with those students. I neither know nor care what this contributes to their “certification,” since I’m only interested in their education.

3) the conjoining of “certifying” and “idealism” troubles my Weberian sensibilities to no end. If we are doing anything at all for our students — and this applies broadly to everyone in the academy, I think, but perhaps especially to those of us who teach about politics — we ought to be pressing them to deal with the conflicts between their ideals and the means of implementing those ideals. We should also be pressing them to deal with the fact that not all idealistic value-commitments point in the same direction, that not all normatively desirable ends can be accomplished all at once, and that in the end not all ideals can be rationally reconciled — in other words, our students need to be appraised of the failure of the Enlightenment project of bringing all values together under the common head of Reason, and of the consequent need for hard and perhaps un-rationalizable choices and commitments. We do everyone a disservice if we are somehow restricting our work to the “certification” of people’s “idealism,” and in a very real sense I think that we’re betraying our vocations as professors if we do so.

It’s not that I want everyone who takes one of my classes to come out on the other side cynical and disillusioned. But I do want them to have their idealism somewhat tempered, so that they can either uphold their ideals “in spite of it all” (as Weber said) and go into politics with their eyes open and in full awareness of the necessary compromises that they will have to make, or select another profession. I continue to maintain that pure, unreconstructed idealists make for the worst, most inhuman politicians (whether they’re formally in government or just outside of the government trying to push it in one direction or another), because they can justify any depravity in the name of their ideals. We should not be in the business of certifying idealism, and if we are, then we need to change the business. Pronto.