The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

A warning to parents


August 21, 2012

Just say no to theory.

Parents: Are you worried that your college students aren’t interested in the real world anymore? Are they growing distant from conversations about foreign policy at the dinner table? Are your college students getting involved with international relations theory? Could it lead to a destructive path toward an M.A.–or even a Ph.D.?

If you’re worried that your child could become a graduate student, you need to know the warning signs:

  • Abstracting too much.
    Real foreign policy professionals resist the urge to generalize, unless they’re doing so as part of a doctrine named for a president. IR students spend too much time trying to understand international politics without reading the New York Times or Council on Foreign Relations task-force reports. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy–and all theory and no facts make Jack, Ph.D., unemployable.
  • Upsetting the conventional wisdom.
    Is your son or daughter spending all of his or her time trying to disprove the proposition that 1648 marked the beginning of the modern states-system? That’s unhealthy. Why spend time obsessing over such historical minutiae when the European Union is in trouble today?
  • Learning about methodology.
    True, some exposure to methods can provide useful, marketable skills.
    Qualitative methods leads to better writing; quantitative research can help your child land a job in predictive analytics, data science, or data visualization. But too much exposure to methodology turns them into asocial neurotics, blabbering about improper uses of “process tracing” or “Mahalanobis distances.” In terminal forms, this interest can lead to drawing distinctions between “methods” and “methodology” that even most practicing researchers don’t recognize.
  • Obsessing about originality.
    When you share a well-written Nicholas Kristof or Tom Friedman piece from the Sunday Times magazine with them, does your child mutter something about “N of one” or “neoliberal shibboleths”? If so, they may be in danger of becoming graduate students.

If your child is displaying any of these tendencies, there may still be hope. We recommend a thorough course of treatment here at the Duck of Minerva’s Institute of Medicine, where one of our skilled quacks will diagnose the severity of the symptons and place your child on a route to employability.

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