The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

What Makes a Great Scholar?

October 17, 2013

I attended a celebration of the life of Kenneth Waltz held at Columbia University last weekend. The service was organized and hosted by Robert Jervis, Robert Art, and Richard Betts and included sixteen speakers — family members, scholars, and former students who gave wonderful tributes based on their own personal reflections on his life, research, and teaching.

It was clear that Waltz was gifted intellectually. His book Man, the State, and War was written in just over a year in 1959 and transformed the field. But this was only the start, he made major intellectual contributions in each of the next five decades — remarkable staying power for a scholar. Yet, as Jervis pointed out, Waltz was not really that prolific — only three solo authored books and the two major books (Man, the State and War and Theory of International Politics) were rather short. As one speaker noted, he wrote slowly and with few words, but because his did so, his words will last for a very long time.

In listening to the tributes, I jotted down notes on what people thought might have given Waltz the insights to make such a contribution to IR — and wondered more broadly, what makes a great scholar, one with the insights to transform and keep pressing the field for decades?

Here are a few thoughts from the tributes:

First, ask big and important questions. Start with the question and the puzzle to something big and relevant. For Waltz, it was the question of why wars happen — even when no one really wants to start one? This question was born out of his experience serving in World War II and the Korean War and his deep reading of World War I. His research was driven by a desire to understand big questions, not by methodological rigidity or a new dataset. As Steve Walt said, Waltz asked simple questions and worked like hell to answer them with equally big answers. Of all the points on what makes a great scholar, this seems to be most obvious, yet the most difficult for the rest of us to achieve.

Second, understanding political science and IR requires more than IR and political science training. The field of international politics is, in many ways, really a field of the human condition. We can all see the influence of Waltz’s early flirtation with the field of economics in his structural realism. But, there was something deeper in his thinking than the simple analogy of the firm. Waltz relied on, and was inspired by, a wide range of literature and the arts to influence his own ideas and his work. To illustrate the interaction effects of structure in Theory of International Politics, Waltz invoked Edward Albee’s play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf demonstrating George and Martha are living in a system: “each acts and reacts to the other. Stimulus and response are part of the story.” It was his knowledge and passion of reading literature and attending the opera that almost certainly opened his mind to creative insights into the big questions on international politics.

Third, quality scholarship takes time. The academy doesn’t always recognize this especially under today’s increasingly commercialized pressures. But, it’s important to note that Waltz’ three books were published a decade apart — Man, the State, and War in 1959; Foreign Policy and Democratic Politics in 1968, and Theory of International Politics in 1979. Several of the tributes noted how Waltz often struggled with how he could come up with a sequel to Man, the State, and War. But, in the end, he was given the professional latitude to publish his books a decade apart. I’m curious if that would be good enough for tenure and promotion at Berkeley or Columbia today?

Fourth, lean on and recognize the intellectual support of partners, family, and friends. Most scholarship — and almost all great scholarship — is ultimately a collaborative activity. Take a look at any Forward in any book and there is almost always an acknowledgement of a major contribution of the intellectual and psychological support of others. While Waltz’s major contributions were technically single-authored, it was clear from the tributes that they were genuinely collaborative projects with his wife Helen.

Fifth, take a position and engage in rigorous debate on the ideas to hone logic and argument. A number of speakers referenced the timidity of many scholars in the field who postulate highly nuanced and caveated positions — Waltz was not one of them. Don’t be afraid to take and defend a position and work over time to develop the ideas.

Sixth, and related, professional disagreements and personal relationships should be separated. Waltz could be ruthless in his engagement with other scholarship. And, there were those who did not take kindly to his intellectual ruthlessness. But, one of the most powerful speakers at the tribute was Scott Sagan speaking on his reflections of his public debate and engagement with Waltz on nuclear weapons. Waltz and Sagan clearly disagreed, but they used their disagreements to enrich the rest of us — and they respected and admired each other as they did so. Any of us in the academy know all too well how frequently personal conflicts erupt because of intellectual disagreements (and occasionally from petty academic politics). IR is littered with these feuds across time. These are not only demoralizing for those directly involved, but almost certainly stifle the type of intellectual engagement across methodological, theoretical, and empirical divides that leads to stronger scholarship overall.

Seventh, learn to write well and make each word count. Much of what Waltz wrote was short, but powerful. He took highly complex theoretical formulations and presented them with an elegance that lost little of their sophistication. This is rare in academic writing.

Finally, being intellectually rigorous (and even ruthless) does not require one to be rude or mean. One of the most genuine tributes came from Dianne Pfundstein — one of Waltz’s last Ph.D. students after more than fifty years of teaching. She described how despite his failing health, he continued to engage her research and press her on her arguments in a wide range of professional and personal exchanges and how he became a grandfatherly figure to her. The other moving tribute came from a close, life-long friend of Helen’s and how she learned — only a decade ago — that Kenneth Waltz was famous. She attended an event at Julliard with a young student from Europe and met up with Waltz at the event. The young student was giddy in meeting the “famous” Kenneth Waltz. The life-long friend recounted that she knew that Waltz wrote books on international relations, but not much more than that. As she explained, Waltz was interested in everything and rarely focused on himself — so she learned only after a fifty year friendship that he was famous.

I’m not sure these are really the elements that are necessary and sufficient to make for a great scholar. There was a simplicity and elegance to much of what Waltz wrote — something that almost certainly requires special intellectual gifts. And, very few will make the types defining contributions that Waltz did. I know I won’t (even though I’m pretty close to the decade between solo-authored books). But, we can probably all learn a bit from these insights to do a bit better overall.

Feel free to add other things I’m missing on this list.

+ posts

Jon Western has spent the last fifteen years teaching IR in liberal arts colleges at Mount Holyoke College and the Five Colleges in western Massachusetts. He has an eclectic range of intellectual interests but often writes on international security, U.S. foreign policy, military intervention, and human rights. He occasionally shares his thoughts about professional life in liberal arts colleges. In his spare time he coaches middle school soccer, mentors the local high school robotics team, skis, and sails.