Should computer coding be written into high school curricula? Coding appears to be the latest education trend, according to New York Magazine: while nine out of ten U.S. high schools don’t offer computer programming, professionals are recognizing a need for more computer programmers in the job field. New York quotes Maria M. Klawe, president of Harvey Mudd College: “We have a clear disparity between the needs of industry and the number of computer-science graduates we produce. We simply do not have enough students graduating high school with an interest in pursuing computer science.”
But despite the importance of computer science and programming jobs, Jathan Sadowski believes required coding classes could be detrimental to our high schools. He wrote for Wired on Monday that, while many view coding as an essential skill set in today’s technological world, mandatory classes could actually widen the country’s inequality gap:
We have enough trouble raising English literacy rates, let alone increasing basic computer literacy: the ability to effectively use computers to, say, access programs or log onto the internet. Throwing coding literacy into the mix means further divvying up scarce resources. Teaching code is expensive. It requires more computers and trained teachers, which many cash-strapped schools don’t have the luxury of providing … Focusing on the additional, costly skillset of coding — rather than the other more essential, but still lacking, types of literacy — is the product of myopic technical privilege. There’s a reason such arguments arise primarily from the digerati: In that world, basic access is rarely a problem.
At first glance, adding computer coding to educational curricula seems like a savvy step. Especially considering the difficulty of obtaining jobs in today’s economy. However, as Sadowski points out, there are limited opportunities available to educators and students. This limited time should be focused on the basics, first and foremost. Literacy and math are essential to students’ educational progress. Without that comprehension, they will find it difficult to excel in other areas. But the beauty of educational rudiments like math and English lies in their transcendence: children who understand the beauty of the written word, or delight in solving math equations, will have already cultivated learning habits essential to computer coding.
Could coding classes perpetuate the inequality gap? Only if we attempted to implement them on any sort of mandatory level. There is nothing wrong with learning computer coding. One could argue it’s like learning a musical instrument: it’s an excellent, interesting, and useful skill. But much like learning an instrument, there is a lot of time and money involved in coding classes. Joining a “code club” would enable students to enjoy programming, without exorbitant cost to schools.
Arguing that code is the “true lingua franca of the future” seems to give it an importance that devalues other beautiful, non-verbal languages. What of the transcendent language of music? What of art? Truly, it would be best if students could be well-versed in all these “languages.” Unfortunately, we haven’t the time or resources to teach all these wonderful subjects. But perhaps some students will seek out coding, music, and art on their own.
The test scores are in, and the U.S. is lagging far behind. That’s the headline rippling across America’s newspapers this week as the Programme for International Student Assessment has released its 2012 evaluations of schoolchildren across the world, and Americans are once again finding out that they are far from being #1.
The New York Times noted that “The United States’ underperformance was particularly striking in math, where 29 countries or education systems had higher test scores. In science, students in 22 countries did better than Americans, and in reading, 19 countries.” NBC News anchor Brian Williams opened his PISA segment by describing “the big and sobering news tonight about the state of American education and just how quickly the rest of the world is passing us by.”
The thing is, we’ve always flunked these tests. Since international comparative testing programs began in the 1960s, education reform advocate Diane Ravitch notes “U.S. students have never been top performers on the international tests. We are doing about the same now on PISA as we have done for the past half century.” And for the past half-century, the periodic release of these results have sent American politicians and journalists into a tizzy about the declining competitiveness of the American classroom, a dark phenomenon heralding national decline.
Despite those mediocre test scores, however, one would have to say that the United States has done rather well for itself. We have had our troubles in the intervening years to be sure, but it’s not like the French have overtaken us and are now running away with the world thanks to their superior education. Some scholarly experts warn that even so, we’re in a new era now and decline is once again just around the street corner. The Times quoted Stanford professor Eric A. Hanushek as saying,
Our economy has still been strong because we have a very good economic system that is able to overcome the deficiencies of our education system … But increasingly, we have to rely on the skills of our work force, and if we don’t improve that, we’re going to be slipping.
With due deference to Dr. Hanushek, I rather suspect things may be the other way around. More rigorously organized cultures like Germany, China, South Korea, France, etc. have crafted their educational systems around the primacy of the test, and have driven their students to excel in it. They also often use these tests to sort their students into the tracks determining what further education they will receive. Do well on your eighth grade exams, go to university. Score differently, and get an apprenticeship. The United States has a much more free-wheeling system that industrial employers lament is failing to sufficiently supply them with diesel engine experts.
What we do have, though (and regular readers brace yourselves), is Silicon Valley. The entrepreneur may be overrated in the GOP at the moment, but a creative culture that fosters innovative risks shouldn’t be taken for granted. Moreover, having even the remnant of a liberal arts education circulating in our educational drinking water provides an essential enriching service to our culture. Diesel engine builders may not need to read To Kill a Mockingbird, or Joseph Conrad, or to stare hopelessly at whatever seemingly nonsensical Shakespeare sits in front of them. But we offer every kid the chance to be captured by beauty, and to remember a high school reading when they grow up and realize what Kafkaesque really means.
Ravitch quotes from Keith Baker’s essay “Are International Tests Worth Anything?”: “What has mattered most for the economic, cultural, and technological success of the U.S., he says, is a certain “spirit,” which he defines as “ambition, inquisitiveness, independence, and perhaps most important, the absence of a fixation on testing and test scores.”
That sounds about right.
On September 9, 2013, a conference entitled “The Changing Role of Education in America: Consequences of the Common Core” was held at the University of Notre Dame. I was invited to deliver an introductory set of remarks on the first panel of that conference. I post those comments here in full.
(Following the conference, a first-rate letter opposing the adoption of the Common Core in Catholic schools, composed by ND Law Professor Gerard Bradley, was circulated widely to Catholic faculty. I was proud to sign this letter, which stresses especially the profound insufficiency the narrowly utilitarian aims of the Common Core curriculum).
The Purpose of Education in American Society
Remarks Delivered at the Common Core Conference
September 9, 2013
University of Notre Dame
I have been teaching a freshman seminar for about eight years that is entitled “The End of Education.” In the seminar we study about ten different authors, ranging from Plato and Aristotle to John Dewey and Allan Bloom, all with an eye to exploring the questions “what is education for?” “What end does it seek to achieve?” The aim of the course is not necessarily to give my students the answer to that question but to make them aware of the intense debate that has taken place over the history of Western Civilization over the ends and purpose of education. As I begin my first class by explaining, if you want to know the commitments of a civilization, look at what it aims to teach its young. If one of the main marks of a civilization is its effort to perpetuate itself over successive generations, then its deepest and ultimate cares will be reflected in its educational commitments.
So I must acknowledge that at first glance the question that I’ve been asked to address for this session—“The Purpose of Education in America”—is exceedingly difficult, since there has been no national educational system in America, current efforts notwithstanding. This might be a sign or indication that America, as a civilization, has no civilizational commitments to its young, that it is a uniquely peculiar nation for not having long had a strong national curriculum like that of England or Germany or Japan. Many look at the patchwork, state- and local-controlled variety of education in America and conclude that it is time to standardize and modernize, time to adopt an American set of educational commitments. Read More…
“A crime is happening in our schools every day,” wrote Peter Cohen and Jeff Livingston in a Wednesday Atlantic column. That crime being inflicted upon America’s innocent schoolchildren: their agonizing lack of wall-to-wall Wi-Fi. The McGraw-Hill president and vice president write,
At work and at home, most of us live our very wired, connected lives—moving between wi-fi zones as we give little thought to the millions of schoolchildren around the country who go to school every day without Internet or broadband connections, without access to 1:1 computing, and without the benefit of modern handheld learning devices.
In light of this injustice, U.S. Department of Education official Richard Culatta told this year’s SXSWedu festival that “angry mobs of parents should be storming schools with pitchforks,” according to the article. How have these students managed to survive school without Internet access constantly at their fingertips?
Thankfully, salvation is nigh: President Obama’s ConnectED initiative “aims within five years to connect 99 percent of America’s students through next-generation broadband … and high-speed wireless networks in schools.”
Under the McGraw-Hill mindset, teachers couldn’t possibly teach without access to the newest plethora of educational apps and software available online. Students, so accustomed to their digital devices, couldn’t be expected to learn via old-fashioned methods. It is not fair to insist they write with pencils and read dusty old books. They need an interactive, online experience from classroom to hallway to cafeteria.
It’s not that students don’t have Internet at school. Most of them do—but in some locations, it is limited and/or slow. This makes it difficult for students to access the latest interactive educative apps with the appropriate speed, apps that just happen to be sold by McGraw-Hill. Cohen and Livingston also note that “Cisco, a global leader in IT, recently recommended that the FCC put more money into the Obama initiative.” One can understand why, given how many more one-room libraries and small schoolhouses are in need of $20,000 Cisco routers. As they so adroitly put it, it’s time “to get our schools on the superhighway,” notwithstanding the failure of high-tech schools to live up to their lofty promises.
Otherwise, we might foster a generation of nerds who enjoy learning the old-fashioned way: students who enjoy doing actual science experiments, who write out their math homework on antiquated graph paper, who read print books and are forced to practice such antiquated skills as handwriting. Failing to shovel our money into technical solutions to our educational problems, Cohen and Livingston say, “would make us all complicit in what could otherwise be considered one of the greatest crimes of the 21st century.”
Our modern world is obsessed with specialization. Yet this specialization is often unhealthy, both culturally and personally. Aeon Magazine contributor Robert Twigger suggests we need a new area of study—“polymathics”—to counter this monopathic obsession:
Polymathics might focus on rapid methods of learning that allow you to master multiple fields. It might also work to develop transferable learning methods. A large part of it would naturally be concerned with creativity — crossing unrelated things to invent something new. But polymathics would not just be another name for innovation. It would, I believe, help build better judgment in all areas.
The study methods Twigger prescribes have actually existed for quite some time, although in a slightly altered form, as the classical liberal arts. First developed in ancient Greece, the liberal arts encompassed those skills necessary for civic and personal freedom. The Greeks even emphasized the importance of physical athleticism, as Twigger suggests in his article. The “arête” they sought fostered excellence of mind, soul, and body.
In modern academia, the liberal arts usually include a core curriculum that enables students to “master multiple fields.” The liberal arts classically emphasized a progression from rudimentary learning (the “grammar”) to practical application in communication and circumstance (similar to Twigger’s idea of developing “transferable learning methods,” “crossing unrelated things to invent something new,” and ultimately building “better judgment”).
Twigger’s emphasis on learning many fields is good. Specialization, while useful in many job settings, can disparage the interconnected and complimentary nature of learning. Twigger reminds us that the humanities do advance educational growth in multiple subjects:
An intriguing study funded by the Dana foundation and summarised by Dr. Michael Gazzaniga of the University of California, Santa Barbara, suggests that studying the performing arts—dance, music and acting—actually improves one’s ability to learn anything else. Collating several studies, the researchers found that performing arts generated much higher levels of motivation than other subjects.
But note that Twigger is arguing from a claim of practicality: “polymathics will make you smarter, more creative, more humorous,” etc. This is a common attitude toward the humanities: if learning isn’t practical, it shouldn’t be practiced. Twigger points out the quantifiable practicalities of the humanities in his article, but there is no mention of the purpose the Greeks sought after: their vision of arête and freedom.
In a Wednesday New Yorker article, Lee Siegel argues that recent studies on literature—the ones claiming literature makes you more empathetic—soil the beauty of reading literature for its own sake. “Fiction’s lack of practical usefulness is what gives it its special freedom,” Siegel writes. “When Auden wrote that ‘poetry makes nothing happen,’ he wasn’t complaining; he was exulting. Fiction might make people more empathetic—though I’m willing to bet that the people who respond most intensely to fiction possess a higher degree of empathy to begin with. But what it does best is to do nothing particular or specialized or easily formulable at all.”
Perhaps the same is true for Twigger’s “polymathics,” the humanities, and the liberal arts. Despite their quantifiable benefits, one shouldn’t denigrate the “special freedom” of learning for its own sake.
The MetaMetrics corporation has created a book difficulty measurement device, called the Lexile system. It purports to rate books based on their difficulty level—but readers who study their grading system find it faulty. Mark Mitchell at Front Porch Republic and The New Republic contributor Blaine Greteman both criticize the program, both on a practical and philosophical level. Greteman writes,
On my way to work I pass the House on Van Buren Street where Kurt Vonnegut began Slaughterhouse Five—but with a score of only 870, this book is only a fourth-grade read. By these standards Mr. Popper’s Penguins (weighing in at a respectable 910) is deemed more complex … many of the smartest and best have learned the Lexile model too well. They’ve long been rewarded for getting “the point” of language that makes “a parade of its complexity,” and they’ve not been shown that our capacity to manage ambiguity without reducing it enables us to be thinkers rather than mere ideologues. It’s this kind of thinking that makes us “humans” rather than mere “machines.”
They are right. The Lexile measure is quite faulty in its analysis of books. Oftentimes, its ratings do not make sense. But that does not mean the entire concept of the measurement is wrong. It has some limited uses that may be developed with time. Having used the program recently for report research, I have observed a few of the Lexile system’s benefits and drawbacks. It is important to note, at the outset, that Lexile doesn’t even attempt to measure the content of books. The website explains:
A Lexile text measure is based on the semantic and syntactic elements of a text. Many other factors affect the relationship between a reader and a book, including its content, the age and interests of the reader, and the design of the actual book. The Lexile text measure is a good starting point in the book-selection process, with these other factors then being considered.
Thus, the creators themselves note that the Lexile sytem is not all sufficient. It is merely a starting point. Lexile measurements will never be fully objective: they only measure the outward difficulty of things. They cannot truly measure content. Teachers who base their entire curriculum off of Lexile scores will be sorely disappointed.
That being said, the Lexile system could be a useful tool in comparing the rigor of various curricula. It most definitely should not be the sole measurement of books’ usefulness for a class, but if a teacher wants to determine which curricula might be more challenging for students, the Lexile measures offer a preliminary framework for comparing works. The Lexile system’s website has a search engine to find books’ Lexile scores. This could help parents who want to buy books for grammar-challenged kids.
Greteman says that the “Lexile scoring is the intellectual equivalent of a thermometer: perfect for cooking turkeys, but not for encouraging moral growth.” He is right. But cooking a turkey takes more than a thermometer. The ability to pick the perfect herbs, spice rub, stuffing, and condiments—the real content of a turkey’s taste—lies in the skill of a cook. They, not their tools, create a good turkey. Does this mean good cooks should throw out their thermometer? No. Any good cook will have a thermometer on hand, to test and determine the “readiness” of the bird. A thermometer can’t judge a poor or excellent turkey—but it can tell you whether the turkey is appropriately cooked for eating.
The Lexile system is, similarly, a tool: like any tool, it is insufficient. Perhaps its creators will find ways to incorporate qualitative measurements into their scoring system—but do we want them to? I don’t mind utilizing a little common sense alongside the Lexile “thermometer.” Any good teacher should know better than to believe Sports Illustrated for Kids’ Awesome Athletes is more complex than Jane Eyre.
A new study by Common Sense Media shows that the vast majority of children ages 0 to 8 use tablets and smartphones, and for increasing periods of time. The New York Times shared some especially interesting statistics from the report:
Those children are spending triple the time on mobile devices — about 15 minutes daily — that they did in 2011, with playing games, using educational apps and watching videos among their most popular activities, said the San Francisco-based child advocacy group. Four out of 10 children younger than 2 are also using mobile devices, a jump from one in 10 two years ago. The findings come amid increased concern over the time children spend online as families snap up gadgets, game consoles and computers.
“This shows for the first time the development of a true digerati generation from cradle onward,” James Steyer, chief executive of Common Sense Media, told the Times. “Used wisely, technology blended with good content can be a positive form of media, probably better than passive TV viewing. But there are still dangers of too much screen time, and this should be a wake-up call to the tech industry and to parents.”
Many companies have touted modern technology’s educational uses for young children (a claim viewed skeptically by some). But Common Sense Media’s research showed many lower-income parents are still unaware of educational apps’ existence. The report’s authors wrote this could create an “app gap” between children from differentiating incomes:
This study indicates that, as of this point, there are many more privileged than lower-income children using educational content on these platforms and that there is still much work to be done to put the platforms for this content in the hands of those most in need. Among all children ages 0 to 8, about one in four (28%) has ever used educational gaming apps (such as puzzles, memory games, math, or reading programs) on a cell phone, iPod, iPad, or similar device … But there is a big difference when looked at by family income. For example, 41% of children from families that earn more than $75,000 a year have used educational apps, compared to just 16% of children from families earning under $30,000 a year.
Those wanting to reach “children in need,” the authors say, should educate parents on the apps available.
This study also shows the percentage of children who read or are read to on a daily basis has dropped 11 points since 2005 (from 58 percent to 47 percent). “Average time spent reading or being read to also appears to have gone down somewhat”–from :33 to :25 a day. Yet 47 percent of children ages 0 to 1 are watching TV or DVDS—at an average of nearly two hours (1:54) per day. Amongst all children ages 0 to 8, that’s an average of :53 per day watching TV and DVDs.
Do children need wider access to educational apps? Perhaps so; if parents are going to distract their children via mobile devices and tablets, those distractions might as well be educational. There are benefits available via these gadgets, both to busy parents and their children. But there should also be limits on such media usage. According to the Times article, the American Academy of Pediatrics has warned that excessive screen time for children may lead to attention problems, exposure to inappropriate content and obesity. But also, it appears that reading (and being read to) has suffered from the trend. While technological distractions can ease parental burdens, their isolated, addictive attributes should promote caution.
Most educators would agree that the long-term cognitive and imaginative benefits of reading (especially interactive reading between parent and child) far outweigh those of a smartphone app. But a child who refuses to do anything but read needs a break just as much as the app-addicted child. Most parents I knew growing up would encourage their children to “get fresh air” and play outside. But some reports show children’s outdoor activity is also becoming less common with the increased use of technological gadgetry.
It is not the so-called “app gap” that seems, on the face of this, troublesome. Rather, it is parents’ embrace of technological distraction (and education), without question of its intrinsic good, which seems one of the most troublesome indicators in the report.
Gary Rubinstein, a high school math teacher at Stuyvesant High School, wrote an excellent blog piece Saturday on math and the Common Core. He argues that most math teachers are forced to cover too much material, and students’ understanding of the discipline suffers mightily as a result:
The biggest problem with math education is that there are way too many topics that teachers are required to teach. Why has this happened? Over the years things have been added, often as a way to prepare students for something that is going to be needed for a future course … Though things keep getting added, it is rare that anything ever gets removed from the curriculum. The common core was an opportunity to remedy this, but from what I can see they haven’t really allowed anything to be removed. If I were made ‘Math Czar’ I would gleefully chop at least forty percent of the topics that are currently taught from K to 12.
Rubinstein believes education reformers who emphasize “accountability” and “rigor” actually harm students’ comprehension through their fixation on testing. “When teachers have to teach too many topics, they do not have time to cover them all in a deep way,” he writes. “The teacher, then, has to choose which topics to cover in a meaningful way, and which to cover superficially. It would be as if an English teacher was told to cover fifty novels with her class. Not being able to have her classes read all fifty books, she would pick some to read fully while having her class read excerpts or even summaries of the other ones.”
Rubinstein’s example isn’t far from the mark, according to Hechinger Report: the new Common Core standards require English teachers to focus on “depth over breadth, more challenging readings, and increased emphasis on nonfiction.” For teacher Chris Kirchner, this meant altering her curriculum drastically:
…Novels like “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “The Great Gatsby” have been squeezed off the syllabus to make room for nonfiction texts including “The Glass Castle” and “How to Re-Imagine the World.” For the first time, students will read only excerpts of classics like “The Odyssey” and “The House on Mango Street” instead of the entire book. And Kirchner will assign less independent reading at home, but will require students to write more essays, and push them to make connections across multiple texts.
While the emphasis on writing and (as the article mentions later) plays may be beneficial to students, it is hard to see how Common Core’s “depth over breadth” comment would necessitate excerpting and cutting classics. “Depth over breadth” would, one assumes, mean less and more detailed reading. Like Rubinstein’s math class, it would focus on a handful of excellent titles, rather than a wide and shallow range.
Unfortunately, as Rubinstein points out, the new Common Core tests are likely to put additional pressure on teachers and students—yet states who have started assessments “have seen proficiency rates drop from 60% on the old tests to 30% on the new common core tests.”
I encourage you to read his entire blog piece. His brief examples from the classroom bring beauty back to math. One hopes an English teacher will arrive who similarly re-enchants the subject for students.
Often discussed in different sections of the newspaper or the blogosphere, the twin crises of health care and higher education are extraordinary in their similarities. Both are regarded as necessary goods for human flourishing whose costs are spiraling out of control. Both rely on a professional class that is becoming more specialized, losing the generalist who once cared for the “whole person.” Both have seen expanding intervention by the central government which has sought to provide access to the lower and middle classes. Both are believed by many conservatives to be properly reformed by means of market-based solutions. Both are the subject of intense contemporary political debate.
And both were once almost exclusively the province of the Church, and, indeed, can trace their institutional origins—hospitals and universities—as part of the Church’s charitable ministry.
This latter fact, it seems to me, sheds bright light on the common roots of the contemporary crisis of each area. The dominant voices in the debate in both areas—health and education—cleave closely to the contemporary party lines. On the Right, the case is made that a competitive market model will solve the ills of both health care and education. By allowing prices to be driven by supply and demand, and the motivations of the primary actors—doctors and professoriate, on the one hand, patients and students, on the other—to be largely self-interested, the market will resolve how best to allocate the relatively limited access to the best health care and the best institutions of higher education. On the Left, it is believed that the State should rest a heavy hand on the scales of the market, enforcing widespread access, suppressing costs (or providing subsidies), and forcing providers to conform to state-mandated expectations and standards.
Yet there is something fundamentally amiss with making provision of health and higher education contingent on market models and profit calculus, as both seem to be goods that are not subject to the same kind of calculus as automobiles and bubble gum. The very idea that doctors and teachers are or ought to act out of the motivations of self-interest, and provide services to their “consumers,” seems fundamentally contradictory to the kind of work and social role performed by each. The decline of the “generalist” in each sphere is indicative of a deeper crisis of the willingness to act on behalf of a broader conception of the good intrinsic to each profession and on behalf of the person being served, in favor of the specialization encouraged by modern canons of efficiency, productivity, profit, and rationalization.
At the same time, the State is rightly suspected of being unable to fundamentally improve or even maintain the quality of either sphere. It is doubtless the case that it can assure access by the heavy hand of threats, but many rightly worry that, as a consequence, the quality of care and education will deteriorate as a result. The State takes on the ersatz role of “generalist,” seemingly concerned for the good of the whole. It can only pursue that good by seeking to control pricing and access while influencing the ways “care” is provided, but it fails necessarily in caring for the vision of the whole that the actors of the professions are no longer willing or able to perform.
The debate as currently constituted represents a pincer movement aimed ultimately at the re-definition of each area—as we have seen in so many areas of contemporary life. While superficially opposites, proponents of each position in fact share a fundamental hostility to the original presuppositions that had informed the foundation of both institutions—the corporal works of charity central to the Church’s earthly mission.
In fact, it seems increasingly evident that practices such as health care and education are likely to fail when wholly uninformed by their original motivation of religious charity. Neither functions especially well based on the profit-motive or guided by large-scale national welfare policies. As the failure of the market model in each area becomes evident, the demands for the second—government intervention and control—have quickly followed. That both are reaching crises at the same time is hardly coincidental: both benefitted for a long time from the “social capital” accumulated as Church institutions, a legacy of cultures and practices that persisted for a long time even after the practitioners had ceased to embrace them. However, in both cases, the social capital is now depleted, and each now operates on a nonsensical combination of self-interested market motivations and taxation and threat-based national welfare policy. Neither is a fitting motivation or model for either sphere.
In a post for Prospect, Christopher Fear asks why academic political theory is so remote from political practice. He concludes that it’s because political theorists devote themselves to eternal riddles that he dubs “Wonderland questions” rather than today’s problems. Consider justice, perhaps the original topic of political theorizing:
One of the central questions of academic political philosophy, the supposedly universal question “What is justice?” is a Wonderland question. That is why only academics answer it. Its counterpart outside the rabbit-hole is something like “Which of the injustices among us can we no longer tolerate, and what shall we now do to rectify them?” A political thinker must decide whether to take the supposedly academic question, and have his answers ignored by politicians, or to answer the practically pressing question and win an extramural audience.
Fear is right about the choice that political theorists face between philosophical abstraction and making an impact on public affairs. But he doesn’t understand why they usually pick the former. The reason is simple. Academic political theorists ask academic questions because…they’re academics.
In other words, political theorists are members of a closed guild in which professional success depends on analytic ingenuity, methodological refinement, and payment of one’s intellectual debts through copious footnoting. They devote their attention to questions that reward these qualities. Winning an extramural audience for political argument requires different talents, including a lively writing style, an ear for the public discourse, and the ability to make concrete policy suggestions. But few professors have ever won tenure on the basis of those accomplishments.
Another reason academic political theorists avoid the kind of engagement Fear counsels is that they have little experience of practical politics. Most have spent their lives in and around universities, where they’ve learned much about writing a syllabus, giving a lecture, or editing a manuscript—but virtually nothing about governing or convincing lay readers. How does expertise on theories of distributive justice, say, prepare one to make useful suggestions about improving the healthcare system? Better to stick with matters that can be contemplated from the comfort of one’s desk.
In this respect, political theorists are at a considerable disadvantage compared to professors of law or economics. Even when their main work is academic, lawyers and economists have regular chances to practice in the fields in the fields they study. Within political science, many scholars of international relations pass through a smoothly revolving door that connects the university with the policy community. Political theorists have few such opportunities.
Fear points out that it wasn’t always this way. Before the 20th century, many great political theorists enjoyed extensive political influence. But Fear forgets the main difference between figures like Machiavelli, Locke, Montesquieu, Madison, Burke, Hume, Mill, or Marx and their modern epigones. The former were not professors. Although all devoted to the philosophical truth as they understood it, they were also men of affairs with long experience of practical politics.
The “brilliant and surreal tragedy of academic political theory,” then, is not that political theorists have been diverted into the wrong questions. It’s that political theory is an uncomfortable fit with the university. Academic political theorists gravitate toward the kind of questions that career scholars are in a position to answer.