Friday, March 2, 2007

Mearsheimer, the Lion King, and Responsible Scholarship

On Thursday, I attended a fascinating morning panel at the ISA convention on responsible scholarship. Iver Neumann, of Oslo University, took the audience through a sweeping history of literature—from King Lear, to The Prince, to the Lion King—identifying the reoccurring roles of the Advisor and the Critic. While the Advisor is measured, loved by the court, and concerned with form, the Critic takes the long view and is true to himself.

The Critic is characterized in philosophy as fearless, speaking truth to power even when risk is involved, Neumann said. While the Advisor's responsibility to the public is thin and general, the Critic is held morally and directly responsible for his views. A professor that writes a criticism of the government is more responsible than one who simply writes a report. Neumann concluded that the ethos of the Advisor should therefore be, "Unto thyself be true."

Henry Nau
of George Washington University criticized the premise that scholars speak truth to power because that premise presumes that scholarship is neutral and socially unconstrained. Rather, he argued, the relationship between scholarship and policymaking is complementary. Hans Morgenthau said scholars seek truth and policymakers power. But Morgenthau also criticized universities as servants to power—simply service stations that fill the tanks of policymakers with legitimacy.

Truth is evolutionary, Nau argued. Scholarship contributes to this evolution, but there is no such thing as socially-unconstrained truth. Nau asserted that partisanship can actually help policymakers by limiting the number of policy options.

Nau said the recent proliferation of think tanks therefore serves the needs of conservative policymakers, who find less use in traditional universities and established think tanks from the 1920s and 1930s, such as Brookings, NBER, and the Carnegie Endowment.

John Mearsheimer
, University of Chicago, capped the panel by reminding the audience that scholars have a responsibility to society—a responsibility to be actively engaged in the policy debate. How are we given the privilege of getting paid well to read the New York Times as part of our job description, he asked. We have a responsibility to the society around us, he answered. In a democracy, it is important to have many power bases and experts—the more the better. These experts should challenge prevailing wisdom and challenge powerful institutions (namely the White House). In this way, scholars create a marketplace of ideas. If that marketplace flourishes, chances are better that foolish ideas are knocked down.

Mearsheimer described the Vietnam War as a "cockamamy, stupid idea," drawing an analogy to the Iraq War. He lamented that the United States didn't have a fair-minded debate before going into Iraq.

Tenure is critical for the role of scholars, Mearsheimer said. "Tenure makes us untouchable and special." He said the only reason he was able to write with Stephen Walt an article about the Israeli lobby in Washington was that he and Walt had tenure and were therefore protected. "The debate inside the beltway is so sterile because it is too risky to challenge convention," he said.

Mearsheimer echoed the importance of the Critic's role. "Scholars have well-honed analytical skills, and it is good to have smart critics going after the government. You want critics. I am not saying we speak truth to power. I am saying we need smart people who challenge conventions," he said. He said he was suspicious of government service because "If you want to be National Security Advisor, you curb your tongue, and I don't want you to curb your tongue."

Mearsheimer ended by identifying four recent trends in scholarship: First, the professionalization of the academy has led people to be more concerned with building their CVs than seeking truth. Second, there has been an increase of human capital in Washington, DC, and many of these smart people would rather do the advising than listen to people at universities. Third, the disappearance of the true American left wing had created an intellectual vacuum.

Fourth, Mearsheimer said, younger scholars are more worried about their jobs than scholarship. "Young people today kiss up to their seniors. They don't challenge conventional wisdom." The system was set up to protect scholars, but they are not taking advantage of it. "That's sad. We would be better off if scholars were more engaged in the policy debate," he concluded.

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