Do Policy Schools Still Have a Point?

Article by Stephen M. Walt: “Am I proposing that we toss out the current curriculum, stop teaching microeconomics, democratic theory, public accounting, econometrics, foreign policy, applied ethics, history, or any of the other building blocks of today’s public policy curriculum? Not yet. But we ought to devote more time and effort to preparing them for a world that is going to be radically different from the one we’ve known in the past—and sooner than they think.

I have three modest proposals.

First, and somewhat paradoxically, the prospect of radical change highlights the importance of basic theories. Empirical patterns derived from past experience (e.g., “democracies don’t fight each other”) may be of little value if the political and social conditions under which those laws were discovered no longer exist. To make sense of radically new circumstances, we will have to rely on causal explanations (i.e., theories) to help us foresee what is likely to occur and to anticipate the results of different policy choices. Knowledge derived from simplistic hypothesis testing or simple historical analogies will be less useful than rigorous and refined theories that tell us what’s causing what and help us understand the effects of different actions. Even more sophisticated efforts to teach “applied history” will fail if past events are not properly interpreted. The past never speaks to us directly; all historical interpretation is in some sense dependent on the theories or frameworks that we bring to these events. We need to know not just what happened in some earlier moment; we need to understand why it happened as it did and whether similar causal forces are at work today. Providing a causal explanation requires theory.

At the same time, some of our existing theories will need to be revised (or even abandoned), and new ones may need to be invented. We cannot escape reliance on some sort of theory, but rigid and uncritical adherence to a particular worldview can be just as dangerous as trying to operate solely with one’s gut instincts. For this reason, public policy schools should expose students to a wider range of theoretical approaches than they currently do and teach students how to think critically about them and to identify their limitations along with their strengths…(More)”.