From Martin Kramer
“Scholars on the Sidelines” is the headline of an op-ed by Harvard’s Joseph Nye in Monday’s Washington Post. There he notes that the Obama administration has appointed few political scientists to top positions, and predicts a widening of the divide between policymaking and academic theorizing. His Harvard colleague Stephen Walt has echoed the complaint, placing the blame upon scholars who follow what he calls “the cult of irrelevance.” Michael Desch, a Notre Dame political scientist, also has written in the same vein in a new piece entitled “Professor Smith Goes to Washington,” claiming that while Obama may be “depopulating the Ivy League and other leading universities with his appointments,” it’s unlikely the academics can match the influence of the think tanks or overcome the anti-intellectualism that pervades society and government.
The driver of this year’s rehashing of the issue is the promise of the Obama administration; just a few years ago it was the threat of Al Qaeda. Ask Bruce Jentleson now a MESH member, who wrote a similar and much-discussed lament about academic insularity—exactly seven years ago.
Of course, the debate is older than that. I addressed it myself, in an article entitled “Policy and the Academy: An Illicit Relationship?” originally delivered as a lecture in 2002. The occasion was the tenth anniversary of the passing of Elie Kedourie (1926-1992), who taught politics at the London School of Economics and whose work has had an abiding influence upon many students of the Middle East, myself included. My subject was a short essay by Kedourie, dating from 1961, entitled “Foreign Policy: A Practical Pursuit.” I explored (and contested) Kedourie’s principled belief that policy and the academy should not meet, and that the divide benefited them both.
My piece is on the web and many have read it. But now that this debate has resumed, I think it useful to provide access to Kedourie’s own text—a trenchant 1,100 words—which I think speaks rather more forcefully than my synopsis of it. Read his piece first, and only then read my discussion of it. (By the way, the poet he quotes is Eliot; the poem, Gerontion. And yes, Kedourie usually did put “social scientists” in quotation marks.)
• • •
Foreign policy, it is universally agreed, is a practical pursuit. It is an activity the end of which is the attainment of advantage or the prevention of mischief. Foreign policy, in short, is action, not speculation. Is the academic fitted by his bent, his training, his usual and wonted preoccupations, to take or recommend action of the kind which generals and statesman are daily compelled to recommend or take?
Someone might say, in reply, that academics are the best fitted for this activity. They have, after all, a highly trained intelligence, they are long familiar with the traffic of ideas, and long accustomed scrupulously to weigh evidence, to make subtle distinctions, and to render dispassionate verdicts. Plato, it might be urged, was not far out in his hopes of philosophers becoming kings.
The good academic is indeed as has just been described, but it is not really wise to invoke Plato’s shade, and exalt the scholar to such a high degree. For consider: if the academic is to recommend action here and now—and in foreign policy action must be here and now—should he not have exact and prompt knowledge of situations and their changes? Is it then proposed that foreign ministries should every morning circulate to historians and “social scientists” the reports of their agents and the despatches of their diplomats? Failing this knowledge, the academic advising or exhorting action will most likely appear the learned fool, babbling of he knows what.
It may be objected that this is not what is meant at all: we do not, it may be said, want the academic to concern himself with immediate issues or the minutiae of policies; we want his guidance on long-term trends and prospects; and here, surely, his knowledge of the past, his erudition, his reflectiveness will open to him vistas unknown to the active politician, or unregarded by him. And should not this larger view, this wider horizon be his special contribution to his country’s policies and to its welfare? But this appeal to patriotism, this subtle flattery, needs must be resisted. Here the man of action may be called on in support: it is related of the great Lord Salisbury that presented with a long, judicious, balanced memorandum written by one of his officials, and abounding in wise considerations on the one hand, and in equally sage considerations on the other hand, he impatiently exclaimed: “How well do I know these hands!”
The long view, the balanced view, the judicious view, then, can positively unfit a man for action, and for giving advice on action—which, as has been said, must be taken here and now. The famed academic, Dr. Toynbee, writing his Study of History in 1935 came to the conclusion, on the weightiest and most erudite of grounds, that there was no likelihood of Peking ever again in the future becoming the capital of China! Should he not have remembered the sad and moving confession of Ibn Khaldun—a writer he much admired—that his minute knowledge of prosody unfitted him for the writing of poetry?
What is true of poetry is as true of politics, and an academic’s patriotic duty is not to confuse rulers with long views and distant prospects, for the logic of events seems to take pleasure in mocking the neat and tidy logic of ideas:
Think now [it is a poet who warns us]
History has many cunning passages, contrived corridors
And issues, deceives with whispering ambitions,
Guides us by vanities. Think now
She gives when our attention is distracted
And what she gives, gives with such supple confusions
That the giving famishes the craving. Gives too late
What’s not believed in, or if still believed
In memory only, reconsidered passion. Gives too soon
Into weak hands, what’s thought can be dispensed with
Till the refusal propagates a fear.
How difficult, therefore, to be wise, except after the event, and how every leap is a leap in the dark! To be wise only after the event is accounted a failing in men of action; but to be wise after the event is a virtue in historians. To leap in the dark requires strong muscles, steady nerves, a taste for adventure, and not too great a fear of the consequences. “I am not responsible for the consequences” Salisbury used to say, and he meant that having acted to the best of his knowledge and judgement, he could not but let the events take their course as the fates in their caprice decreed.
Shall academics then presume to instruct a man how he shall leap? Presumption is the pride of fools, and it ought to be the scholar’s pride not to presume. It is pursuit of knowledge and increase of learning which gives scholars renown and a good name. How then should they, clothed as they are in the mantle of scholarship, imitate this lobby or that pressure group, and recommend this action or that, all the time knowing full well that in politics one is always acting in a fog, that no action is wholly to the good, and that every action in benefiting one particular interest will most likely be to another’s detriment. Scholars, of course, are also citizens, and as such jealous for the welfare and honour of their country. Equally with other citizens they can recommend and exhort, but they should take care that a scholarly reputation does not illicitly given spurious authority to some civic or political stance.
Of what use then are academics? The impatient, mocking question seems to invite the short, derisive answer, which men of action and men of business have not seldom been disposed to give. But the scholar’s existence and activity does not have to be justified by his usefulness. Who, in the first place, shall be the judge of usefulness, who can tell whether the useful will not turn out to be useless and worse, and in the second, a world in which people shall live or die according as they are useful or not is one which men must feel to be totally estranged and hostile. The question therefore cannot be, of what use are academics, but rather what is it that they do. Unlike the earlier question, this one does not plunge the enquirer into the metaphysical depths, and the answer to it is very simple. Academics seek to transmit and to increase learning, one had almost said useless learning—but one does not wish to provoke. Foreign policy they leave to those who make bold to know how to leap in the dark.
First published in The Princetonian, January 4, 1961; republished in Elie Kedourie, The Crossman Confessions and other Essays in Politics, History, and Religion (London: Mansell, 1984).
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