The Duck of Minerva

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Walt sings the praises of a liberal education

August 25, 2012

Steve Walt opines that “would-be foreign policy wonks” should basically get a classical liberal-arts education, and he uses a traditional justification for this: “In world that is both diverse and changing rapidly, a broad portfolio of knowledge is almost certainly the best preparation for a long career in the field.” I’d amend that somewhat, and say that a broad liberal-arts education — which isn’t about gaining a portfolio of knowledge or skills as much as it is about developing a certain critical intellectual disposition — is almost certainly the best preparation for the rest of your adult life, not just for a career in the IR field however understood. Hyper-specialization at the undergraduate level is something that annoys me to no end, and on that score as on many of the specifics in Walt’s list I find myself in complete agreement.

Two minor quibbles and one more major issue.

Minor quibble #1: I think Walt gets the justification for studying some statistics as an undergraduate student precisely correct: “statistics is part of the language of policy discourse, and if you don’t understand the basics, you won’t be a discerning consumer of quantitative information.” It’s a language, you need to be able to speak it in at least a rudimentary way to make headway in most policy circles, and (it pains me to say) in most IR academic circles too. [Not because statistics is bad, but because I think we can do better as a basic methodological vocabulary than elementary statistics. But that’s another post, or a different book that I already wrote.] But when Walt advises the study of economics, he shifts his epistemic warrant slightly, calling for “basic grasp of the key principles of international trade and finance and some idea how the world economy actually works.” The former justification (statistics is a language) makes no commitment to statistics being a correct or even defensible way to view the world, just as his recommendation to learn a foreign language makes no commitment to a given language being somehow truer. But the latter justification presumes that the language of contemporary economics is some kind of a reliable guide to how things work, a debatable proposition indeed — especially given very good recent work on the performativity of economic language. he should have stuck with “learn some of that language too.”

Minor quibble #2: Walt suggests that “geography matters” so students ought to learn things like the physical characteristics of different regions. But this is a non sequitur, since it is entirely possible for one to maintain that geography matters without becoming a geographical determinist. Studying the physical characteristics of a region and expecting them to give one insight into social and political dynamics is geographical determinism, whether or not one produces a minor caveat by converting those physical characteristics into an independent variable with only a partial or probabilistic impact on outcomes…if physical characteristics explain social forms, then we’re a minor and theoretically inconsequential step away from “geography is destiny” and Halford Mackinder’s world-island and heartland. On which, well, one might read any piece of critical geography/geopolitics written in the past several decades, starting here and here. In fact, works like those two provide a gateway to a more defensible and less reductionist/determinist kind of “geography matters,” in which it’s the discourse of geographic space and not that space “in itself” (whatever the heck that might mean) which has consequences.

And this in turn links to my biggest hesitation about Walt’s list, which is his persistent equivocation between the notion that one should study certain things as an undergraduate in order to grasp the diversity of ways that people make sense of the world, and the notion that one should study certain things as an undergraduate in order to grasp the way that things really are (despite what others might think, because they’re wrong). This is perhaps most apparent in Walt’s first recommendation, which is that one should study history:

Not only does history provide the laboratory in which our basic theories must be tested, it shapes the narratives different peoples tell themselves about how they came to their present circumstances and how they regard their relationship to others. How could one hope to understand the Middle East without knowing about the Ottoman Empire, the impact of colonialism, the role of Islam, the influence of European anti-Semitism and Zionism, or the part played by the Cold War?  Similarly, how could one grasp the current complexities in Asia without understanding the prior relations between these nations and the different ways that Chinese, Vietnamese, Koreans, Japanese, Pashtuns, Hindus, Muslims, and others understand and explain past events?

Walt’s “not only” joins two extremely, even radically, different versions of what it would mean to  study history. History as “laboratory” — Walt means historical facts as data for our theories to test themselves against, but this conception also covers historical facts as parts of developmental sequences that play themselves out behind the backs, or otherwise out of the grasp of, actors  — suggests that we understand a present situation in world politics better by studying what came before it. History as “the narratives different peoples tell themselves about how they came to their present circumstances” — true, Walt says that those narratives are shaped by history rather than being history itself, but then as the paragraph unfolds he grants the study of historical self-understanding its own autonomous role in grasping “current complexities” — suggests, by contrast, that we understand a present situation in world politics better by seeing what use is made of the past in the present and how that puts horizons on the future. Events with persistent causal power versus the causal power of “eventing,” so to speak.

My hesitation is two-fold. First, Walt, like many IR scholars, doesn’t seem to be aware of the tension between these two points of view, so he (like others) can pass pretty seamlessly from “here’s how different actors construe the situation” to “here’s how it is.” But there is radical tension, perhaps to the point of incommensurability, between those approaches to history. Because Walt glosses over that tension, I hesitate. But I also hesitate because I suspect that in the end Walt is really siding with the first approach rather than the second, and is hence unable to reflexively grasp the extent to which his own account of “how it is” is itself a perspectival construal rather than a way of dispelling inaccurate perspectives. The point of a liberal-arts education, as far as I am concerned, is to kick the apparent supports out from under each and every supposed “view from nowhere” by showing how they emerge from particular combinations of commitments and stances, and this in turn propels the liberally-educated person into a better grasp of the contingency of things — which in turn allows creative action that shapes a plausible future. It is precisely not about mastering a multifaceted-but-ultimately-homogenous narrative of The Way That The World Is so that one can use that as a basis for Sound Policy Recommendations.

Developing a respect for ambiguity and contingency is not the same thing as eliminating ambiguity and contingency through a more intricate totalizing account, even if that totalizing account is couched in terms of “a broad portfolio of knowledge” for a “world that is both diverse and changing rapidly.” The former embraces genuine uncertainty in the Knightian sense; the latter reduces it to just plain old “risk.” And I would say that the latter is precisely not what a liberal-arts education is all about — it’s a technocratic device for imagining oneself into a far less ambiguous world. But a liberal-arts education equips one to live in that world instead of perpetually trying to engineer it away. Walt’s last recommendation involves confronting ethical questions and conundrums, which I certainly agree is something that one ought to do as an undergraduate student…but not to find a superior foundation as much as to start recognizing the limits of such foundations, the Weberian “uncomfortable facts” that each and every principled position has to confront. Remember that it was Plato who thought that one could craft new, superior foundations; Socrates just asked questions that confounded his interlocutors and forced them to question their assumptions. The liberal-arts educator ought to think Socrates rather than Plato, and the undergraduate student — especially, perhaps, the undergraduate student interested in world politics broadly understood — ought to be a lot more concerned with the diversity of ways of worlding than with looking for the One True (Account Of The) World.

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Patrick Thaddeus Jackson is Professor of International Studies in the School of International Service, and also Director of the AU Honors program. He was formerly Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of International Relations and Development, and is currently Series Editor of the University of Michigan Press' book series Configurations: Critical Studies of World Politics.