'Too Much Information:' International Affairs, Political Science and the Public Sphere

Lisa Anderson, American University, Cairo

Stephen Walt’s observations about the “growing gap between university-based scholars and both the policy world and the public sphere” echo, as he points out, many such laments in recent years, and much virtuous self-criticism in the academy. Political scientists (and area studies specialists) have been quick to castigate themselves about the irrelevance of their work and to worry about the growth of a competitive “alternate-universe” policy world of think tanks that seem not to share our high standards but nonetheless to enjoy the high regard among the public we think is rightfully ours.

Indeed, I have written some of these complaints myself.[1] We political scientists seem to be unusually voluble in sharing our pain at being spurned by policymakers whose heads have been turned by far less deserving pundits and bloggers. I don’t disagree, although sometimes I think we protest too much or, as my children might say, we offer up stories that are all too revealing: “TMI”—too much information! A bit of forbearance might be becoming, since I am not sure we know as much about what we are talking about as we claim. The solutions are usually of the “heal thyself” variety—we should reformulate the incentive systems for our graduate students, we should reward the public intellectuals among us, etc. Yet for all our breast-beating and pained self-examination, few of the high-minded reforms we advocate have ever even been deliberated, less adopted, in any of the high prestige departments in which they might actually make a difference.[2] There seems to be a disconnect between what we (or at least some of us) say and what we do.

It is hard not to notice that this hand-wringing is becoming a feature of modern life. It is not just international affairs, or the social sciences, or even the universities in which they are housed, that seem to be beset by public indifference (not to say contempt) and which therefore exhibit the natural existential anxiety that such disregard ordinarily engenders. So are newspapers,[3] banks,[4] armies,[5] political parties,[6] governments,[7] practically everything.[8] In fact, most of the cornerstone institutions of mid-twentieth century modernity are fretting about their sustainability, indeed, their very viability. This suggests that both the disease and the cure—insofar as there is, or should be a cure—is not in each of the individual patients splayed on the examining table, but in the very environment in which they operate. Perhaps, unbeknownst to most of us, the air we breathe has gotten richer in some element we have not yet measured, the ambient temperature hotter, the water shallower, the daylight brighter—that is, something has changed that is affecting all of these institutions. After all, if we have perceived an infirmity for some time and could heal ourselves, presumably we would have done so. So, either we don’t really think there is a disease or if we do, none of our proposed treatments are effective cures, because we have yet to understand its causes.

To what extent is the inability of political science, international relations, area studies, social science, academia—pick your university problem—to engage effectively with the public sphere a reflection not just of our own foibles, but also of the larger world in which we operate–that is, the public sphere itself? What if our trials are merely a part–a symptom–of a larger environmental change in the way the “public” interacts with authorities like professors, generals, senators, journalists? And insofar as they are, what accounts for that environmental change, that general circumstance, which might contribute to the frailty of all these institutions?

I believe that transformation in the availability of information has eroded authority, undermined hierarchies and upended the organizational mechanisms by which knowledge is developed, collected and disseminated in almost all domains of social life—including science and politics—and that this systemic environmental change accounts for the dramatic decline in interest in and deference to universities and university-based research. Like most senior academics, I can trace the resulting changes in relations between professors and students, not to say research scientists and the public, in my own career.

More Information than We Know What to Do With

When I was starting graduate school, I had a professor who had been born in Eastern Europe before the First World War. Even then he was a bit “old-school” — formal by the standards of the heirs of the student revolutions of the 1960s, but not qualitatively different in his expectations of his students from his fellow professors. He had a trick he used at the beginning of every semester to ensure that we paid attention—he would slowly and carefully draw a detailed map of Europe freehand on the blackboard, all the while berating his (largely American) students for their feeble grasp of geography. We were naturally mesmerized, and after that class, he had us in his thrall—we believed he knew, and would probably always know, more than we did and we could do no better than sit at his feet (metaphorically—he preferred we sat at rapt attention in our rows of desks) and receive his knowledge and wisdom, which were pretty much interchangeable.

I have thought periodically of my late professor as I debate asking my students whether they should switch off their smartphones, tablets, laptops and netbooks in class. On the one hand, of course, these devices are terrific distractions—I myself have received emails from students that were sent during class to listservs of which they had forgotten I was a member. On the other hand, why bring a map to class, much less learn to draw one freehand on a blackboard, when virtually all the maps, recording all the political changes, military campaigns, population fluctuations, GDP figures and crop harvests at any time and place any of us could possibly want to know, are quite literally at our fingertips—just a few redemptive clicks away from the distractions of email and Facebook?

Much of what the great institutions of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries—indeed, probably since the “Age of Discovery,” when empiricism began to triumph over faith and civil institutions began to supersede religious hierarchies in public life—do is essentially trade in information; the universities, the media, the markets, militaries, banks, governments and parties which shape our public life were designed around—to both utilize and transcend and information scarcities and asymmetries. Universities collected and transmitted the accumulating wisdom of the past and periodically discovered “new knowledge,” which was duly stored in great museums and libraries for transmission to future generations. Banks and commercial firms had privileged access to, and sometimes developed, information about market trends; governments collected and elaborated “data” from censuses; political parties aggregated opinions, newspapers disseminated, well, news, selections of information they deemed “fit to print.”

But, as we all know, pretty much anyone with a mobile phone can find out what the price for today’s catch is, what the most popular movie is (and when and where it is playing), who shares his opinion of single-sex marriage, when the Italians invaded Libya, where the Friday protest will gather, if there are any jobs in her field in Cape Town, and how the traffic on the way home will be. Ordinary people do not seem to need facilitators, gatherers, aggregators, interpreters, analysts or—let’s face it—professors, at least as we historically interpreted our role and purpose. What was once a necessity—someone to gather scarce facts, weave a plausible story about how they are related (which we called “the truth”), use that story to explain the world and interpret its significance–has become at best a luxury, at worst a nuisance. Today collecting information is the job of computers and algorithms; compiling it into knowledge—a plausible, perhaps true story about the world—is within the reach of virtually anyone with an internet connection. Facts, or what pass for facts, are hardly a scarce resource, and everyone is equally capable of relating them together in some way, sharing the resulting worldview with millions of other people, and acting together with likeminded people in their neighborhood or across the globe.

From the US Tea Party, to Egypt’s Tahrir Square protestors, to Britain’s rioters, 2011 has seen new anti-authoritarian social organization take on a strength and energy entirely unexpected—and largely misunderstood—by the establishments against which they are raising their voices. Of course, this deployment of facts in the service of a plausible story that seems to explain the world often produces Steven Colbert’s brilliant “truthiness.” Tests of plausibility in this realm of unfettered access to information and free-for-all interpretation are often somewhat flimsy. Unfortunately, however, this is not always as untrue of social science as we may wish—our esteemed colleagues develop intricate theories and run complex regressions to produce a result even they will no longer claim is actually “true”—merely plausible, testable, verifiable, or replicable. The once bright lines dividing the authorities in universities, with their scholarly articles and books, and professionals in think tanks, with their policy memos and op-ed pieces, and the amateur activists on Facebook, with their blogs and tweets, are increasingly blurred. When political scientists assign essays written by students in their own class as authoritative interpretations of contemporary politics, (as happened in classes at the American University in Cairo in the spring of 2011—the students in questions were also political activists and bloggers), the upending of relations of authority and knowledge in the classroom is virtually complete.

But the political science professoriate is not alone in having lost our ability to credibly do what we were supposed to do. Now everyone can be amateur “critical studies” practitioners, unpacking the “real” story behind the front page of the newspapers. We are now all jaded enough to know that banks developed lending and trading policies—all those derivatives and swaps and futures and hedges–even they don’t seem to understand and certainly can’t explain, and that the expensive professional militaries are being trounced by amateurish terrorist networks, and that political parties aren’t representing members, or voters, or even ideological commitments, so much as donors’ interests and candidates’ careers.

Eroding Authority and Professional Anxiety

In this context, all the big public institutions are struggling to find new purposes and identities. The news media ape lifestyle magazines and hire self-referential “public editors” to worry out loud as they lose readership. Political parties compete for the growing numbers of “independents” and look to social movements like the US’s Moveon.org and Tea Party to capture the energy and enthusiasm they once represented. And, although college applications in the US are at an all time high, universities anxiously flaunt fancy food courts and sports complexes to make sure the “college experience” is appealing to prospective students. Universities have become places to pass time and collect credentials, and it is only a small minority of students that actually acquires knowledge and learns skills they could not get elsewhere. Given what most students do while they are students, what they learn is as much how to cook pasta, do a load of laundry and play a variety of elaborate games, on fields, at tables and in front of video screens, as it is to perfect a foreign language, master calculus, or even read deeply. US college students acquire a variety of useful life skills and the experience is probably valuable on balance (if expensive), but it does not typically entail much effort by, or exposure to, faculty.

And most conventional faculty, at least at research universities are quite content with this arrangement, judging from how tight is the inverse correlation between teaching load and status. The widespread worry about the declining proportion of tenured faculty among those who actually teach college students obscures the fact that students spend less of their time studying than they did; in 1961, full-time students allocated 40 hours per week to class and studying while in 2003, they spent about 27 hours per week.[9] The “teaching and learning” that goes on at universities is increasingly unanchored in the formal curricula, as students who are lightly supervised by what has come to be known as the “contingent faculty” (that is, adjuncts, part-timers and graduate students) learn from other students, outside the classroom, while the tenured faculty conduct research.

Here the university may diverge slightly from some others of the big twentieth-century institutions, since while most research faculty seem to aspire to a life without students altogether, most journalists want more bylines rather than fewer, as far as I can tell, and most politicians want more votes than fewer. Still, the faculty aversion to the classroom seems to be mirrored in the decreasing willingness and ability of journalists to get into the field, or of politicians to get out on the hustings. It is so much easier to sit in an air-conditioned office and aggregate news from the web, and read blog posts from constituents than it is to grab the steno pad or climb onto the stump. The heroic war correspondent, the sweat-soaked political orator, and indeed, the chalk-covered professor and the white-coated lab scientist are iconic historical figures, and they are all disappearing into a world of nostalgia. Like vinyl records, “hardcopy” books and newspapers, and unscripted political appearances at state fairs, the blackboards and wet labs of university life may soon be artifacts for collectors and roles for reenactors.

All of this suggests that university-based research faculty now work at institutions where what they do is increasingly irrelevant to the financial health of the institution, to the “learning outcomes” of the students, or to the accumulation and transmission of knowledge in society. This will not change simply because graduate students are encouraged to spend a year at think tanks, or op-ed pieces are counted towards tenure, however desirable these experiences might be in themselves (and I think they would be).

Research and Engagement in an Open Access World

Perhaps we should think again about the purposes of universities, and of scientific research, and ask whether in our current institutional configurations and professional guises we are serving those purposes. Insofar as universities are actually places devoted to learning of various kinds—both methodological (how to do laundry, make an argument, conduct an experiment or run a regression) and substantive (what is cleanliness, friendship, a lunar eclipse or democracy), then all of what we do in our professional lives should be about learning—our own, as researchers, and that of others, notably our students but also presumably a wider public of policy elites and fellow citizens.

There are many more places and more media in which learning and teaching take place today—classrooms and wet labs are being supplemented and sometimes supplanted by “learning commons” and computer simulations, students are becoming “peer mentors” and teachers are attending summer seminars and professional association workshops on new developments in their field. Just as proliferating research networks are eroding barriers between national scientific establishments (not to say once rival universities), so too is “life-long learning” erasing the categorical distinctions between student and teacher. The hierarchical relationship of deference once accorded those with privileged access to information is fast disappearing, replaced by collaborative learning, crowd-sourcing, social networks, webs of reciprocity.

What is, or should be, unique about university life is its unmitigated devotion to the spirit of inquiry. It is the search for understanding that marks the academy, and which shapes both the opportunities and limits of its influence in the public sphere. The political scientists wishing to “bridge the gap” between academic scholarship and policy debate will need to revitalize the spirit of playful, inventive, open excitement that is, or should be, the hallmark of genuine education—and to do that they will need to remember that, unlike the think tanks and policy shops of the world, their principal line of work is, well, education. This means that they should be vying for undergraduates, not emulating their think tank colleagues in jettisoning teaching and they should approach their audiences in the public sphere—among policymakers and in general public—just as they approach the most inventive of those undergraduates, with provocative ideas, suggestions, tools and instruments and prods to understanding.

Presenting the finished, polished, completed findings from research conducted in a political science department to policymakers today is rather like drawing a map of Europe on a blackboard: it is neither what today’s policymakers want—it takes too long to produce, it is not interactive or mobile, it precludes questions; in short, it does not reflect the needs of the audience, any audience, today–nor is it what a true political scientist is, or should be, really good at, which is the sort of restless questioning, ceaseless learning, generous teaching that provokes novel interpretations and inventive solutions for the challenges of living in and governing human communities. The joy of learning is a spirit that can be reflected and replicated elsewhere—the “campuses” of Google and Microsoft come to mind—but should be the hallmark of university life, and it should be reflected in the interaction of the denizens of university with their communities, whether policymakers, neighborhood communities or, not least, students.

Thus, to return to Professor Walt’s observations, “engagement” may have “pitfalls” but it is the social physics of the twenty-first century—there is no avoiding it and not much point in worrying over it. Efforts to persuade universities and professional associations to change their criteria for hiring, promoting and rewarding our colleagues are certainly harmless, and may be useful, but they are unlikely to be the principal incentives for political scientists to acknowledge and embrace the changing opportunities presented by our new environment.

Our claims to superior authority, and the special protections we assembled to guard it—academic freedom, tenure, university research budgets unsullied by market or government pressures—may once have helped ensure that our work would not be contaminated by the source of its funding or the desires of its intended recipients. But we can no longer rely on being able to intimidate or overawe the less knowledgeable; expecting consumers or citizens to pay for something whose value they do not understand will no longer suffice. Effective, influential political scientists will be those who bring professional standards of rigor and probity to all of what they do, including engagement with the policy community and wider public. A cloistered life is a puny defense against corruption for those who are susceptible; instead a revitalized discussion of academic integrity and professional ethics in this new information-saturated world is essential.

The successful, influential political scientist will embrace opportunities to interact with others, be they students, colleagues, policymakers (all three of whom may be, let us remember, the same individual at different times). Encouraging, conducting and showcasing collaborative research across these fast-fading professional boundaries will be valuable. This should start with undergraduates, the first and often the best place for genuinely collaborative teaching and learning. Today, liberal arts colleges are encouraging student research not merely to provide assistants to their research-active faculty (though that is certainly an element, since faculty at good liberal arts colleges are no longer content to remain in the now devalued role of “merely” teaching faculty) but also because, as the Mark Zuckerbergs and Gigi Ibrahims[10] of the world have again made plain, undergraduates may have very good ideas. And in fact, so do many policymakers, not to say pundits, bloggers, and others whose credentials as classical political scientists may be suspect. As Steve Walt urges, card-carrying political scientists would do well to invest in collaborations with everyone from Washington’s policy pundits to Egypt’s political activists.

The ancient rituals of our guild—our slow and deliberate systems of graduate apprenticeships, of peer review and tenure, our attachment to “science” and its esoteric language as a shield against, as Rogers Smith suggests, the inevitable politics of studying politics—may have been valuable in creating and sustaining a community of scholars in a context in which information was rare. In today’s information-rich world, however, they are fast becoming a sort of debilitating obsessive-compulsive behavior—a sign perhaps of our deep anxiety but, like all such conduct, self-defeating in their inhibition of the open, spontaneous engagement which fosters the spirit of inquiry in the world. In a world in which university professors are teaching less and university students are studying less, we should be worrying less about how many papers should count in a tenure dossier and more about how to embrace, foster and support the lively world of teachers and learners beyond the academy—including our friends, colleagues, representatives and readers, constituents and consumers in the public sphere.

Initiative on Academia & the Public Sphere

[This essay has been republished, in an expanded version, in Perspectives on Politics.]

1.  See Pursuing Truth, Exercising Power: Social Science and Public Policy in the Twenty-first Century, Columbia University Press, 2003; “Scholarship, Policy, Debate and Conflict: Why We Study the Middle East and Why It Matters” (2003 MESA Presidential Address) Middle East Studies Association Bulletin, Vol. 38, No. 1 (Summer 2004); “Truth, Authority and Policy in the Twenty-first Century,” Lecture delivered November 23, 2007, International Jubilee Symposium of the Scientific Council for Government Policy, The Hague, Netherlands.
2.  In fact, as Rogers Smith’s excellent intervention in this series, “Political Science and the Public Sphere in the 21st Century” suggests, the dilemmas facing American political science and its practitioners may actually have worsened in the last several decades.
3.  See Paul Dailing’s satirical “How to become a ‘Death of Newspapers’ Blogger,” Huffington Post, March 25, 2009; and Michael Gerson, “The strange, sad death of journalism,” November 27, 2009, for two examples.
4.  Andrew Ross Sorkin, Too Big to Fail: The Inside Story of How Wall Street and Washington Fought to Save the Financial System–and Themselves (Viking, 2009); “Survival of the fattest: What, if anything, can be done about banks that are too big to fail?” The Economist, May 12th 2011.
5.  Daniel Howden and Leonard Doyle, “Making a killing: how private armies became a $120bn global industry” The Independent, September, 21, 2007.
6.  Jeffrey M. Jones, “Support for Third U.S. Party Dips, but Is Still Majority View: Fifty-two percent believe a third political party is needed,” Gallup News, May 9, 2011; Ben McGrath, “The Movement: The rise of Tea Party activism,” The New Yorker, Feb 1, 2010.
7.  Jacob S. Hacker And Oona A. Hathaway, “Our Unbalanced Democracy,” The New York Times, July 31, 2011.
8.  Fareed Zakaria, “Are America’s Best Days Behind Us?” Time Magazine, Mar. 03, 2011; Joseph S.Nye, Jr, “Zakaria’s World: Are America’s Best Days Really Behind Us?” Foreign Policy, Mar 8, 2011.
9.  Philip Babcock and Mindy Marks, “The Falling Time Cost of College: Evidence from Half a Century of Time Use Data,” March 24, 2010.
10.  The founder of Facebook and a celebrity blogger of the Egyptian revolution—undergraduates at Harvard and the American University in Cairo, respectively.

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