About Jeremy Pressman

professor, Arab-Israeli stuff, Middle East, Red Sox fan. Twitter: @djpressman

Don’t count out the influence of Education on Policymakers

I was surprised by a claim in Byman and Kroenig (Security Studies, 2016) that we should be wary of assuming education has much impact on policymakers later on: “Policymakers may not fully recognize how their educations shape their worldviews, but with an absence of supporting evidence academics should also not overstate how classroom teachings might affect real-world results.” (pp. 26-27) Yet the evidence in Avey and Desch (2014), the article cited by Byman and Kroenig, is more revealing than that. There is supporting evidence.

Avey and Desch surveyed high-level national security policymakers in the Bush, Clinton, and Bush administrations; they received 234 completed responses. How one interprets two pieces of evidence bears directly on whether education affects policymakers.

In their survey, Avey and Desch asked how scholars should contribute to policymaking. 54% of former officials agreed that one role was as “trainers of policy-makers.” That 54% was lower than both “informal advisors” and “creators of new information/knowledge.” For Avey and Desch, the 54% is a glass half-empty moment: “we were surprised that support for this role was so limited.”

But stepping back from Avey and Desch’s expectations going into the survey, how should we assess that 54%? Does it square with the idea that scholars have little influence on policymakers? Or, does it suggest that more often than not, policymakers view scholars as trainers? I think the latter; if in reality professors played that training role just over half the time, that would be a significant impact, through education, on policymaking.

The second relevant question Avey and Desch asked policymakers was where they acquired their most relevant skills. The answers:

  • field or work experience (49.5%)
  • formal education (27.1%)
  • professional education / job training (11.4%)
  • independent research / reading (5.7%)
  • mentoring (3.3%)
  • other (2.9%)

Again here, to Avey and Desch, the 27.1% is a low number, a glass half empty. While I see their point, I think that 27.1% is more significant. It means formal education programs led to the most relevant skills for just over one-quarter of US policymakers. That is significant and does not fit with the claim that academia, here translated through teaching and coursework, is irrelevant to policymaking.

I was especially intrigued by their survey evidence that one sub-group, policymakers who had PhDs, chose formal education as the most relevant by a wide margin.

One could also imagine more revealing ways to ask this question in a survey more deeply focused on assessing the impact of education on policymaking. It might be, for example, that many of the policymakers who listed field or work experience as #1, would have listed formal education as the the second most important place where they acquired relevant skills. The way the question was asked does not reveal how 72.9% of the respondents view formal education beyond that it was not number one in relevance.

Based on Avey and Desch’s evidence I have noted here, Avey and Desch conclude, “these findings raise important questions about the curriculum and content of much graduate professional education in international affairs.” It is a big leap from that finding to Byman and Kroenig asserting that there is an absence of supporting evidence. We have two pieces of evidence from Avey and Desch that education has a significant impact on some policymakers. Secretaries Albright, Clinton, and Rice, all supportive of that notion from their personal experience and cited by Byman and Kroenig, appear to be onto something.

Oren’s Op-ed Lacks Historical Context

This is a guest post from Prof. Boaz Atzili of American University:

Let me offer a few observations on Michael B. Oren’s op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, “How Obama Abandoned Israel”:

  1. Oren’s article is full of historical misrepresentations. For example, Oren’s statement that Israel has offered the Palestinians statehood in “Gaza, almost the entire West Bank, and half of Jerusalem” is a gross exaggeration. And Obama’s insistence on the total freeze was a result of Israel taking advantage of loopholes in similar previous arrangement that were less explicit.
  2. Oren’s argument that Barack Obama is the first US President to abandon the principle that there should be “no daylight” (no public disagreement) between Israel and the US is simply wrong. The United States, for example, has always publicly opposed Israeli settlements (though less so under President George W. Bush), and never accepted Israel’s annexation of Jerusalem and the Golan Heights.
  3. Moreover, Oren seems to think that this principle runs only one-way: When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu publicly and vehemently calls US policy on a nuclear agreement with Iran dangerous, that’s okay. When Obama disagrees with Israel’s expansion of settlements that’s breaching the trust. How so?
  4. 
Israel makes sure never to deliberately surprise the United States, Oren claims. Really? I cannot believe that the Suez War, the bombing of Osirak, and announcing settlement expansion whenever a high ranking US official is visiting, were all unintended mishaps. Even in the Israeli land of improvisation that is unlikely.
  5. After trying for too long to pressure Israel privately to change its policy (which is basically talk the talk but make sure nobody can walk the walk), the Obama administration did decide to go public with the disagreements. But so long as this is not accompanied by a willingness to actually press Israel by threatening financial or military aid (as, for example, President George H. W. Bush did) or by refusing to veto UNSC resolutions that Israel is opposed to (basically anything that has the words “Palestine” and “Peace” in it), Netanyahu can easily keep on his obstructionist policy. And keep on complaining about Obama through his ambassador-turned-Knesset Member.

The Student is not a Consumer: Further Thoughts

Dan Drezner’s smart post had me speculating thinking about two other related points. Drezner noted that 1) a university is not a corporation and students are not consumers and 2) the real university crisis is in the growing number of college instructors without tenure who are thus vulnerable to poor student evaluations and general student whinging.

First, this might also help us understand grade inflation. If the students-as-consumers expect high grades, and will threaten job security when they don’t get those grades, why not give out high grades like candy? (Though to be transparent, more like the cheap, corn-syrup based candies than good chocolate.) People who have actually researched this possibility seem to agree.

Second, evaluations are so appealing because they boil everything down to a number. A number can be discussed and weighed quickly as well as easily compared to other instructors at the university, as in, “Oh, look, this professor’s average is above the mean for the university as a whole.” This ease and speed could be appealing to administrators or committees that have to supervise and evaluate many instructors. Moreover, in a field like political science where many faculty are pushing quantitative research, the primacy of numbers in evaluation should come as no surprise. It avoids some squishy, qualitative judgment based on, say, actual classroom observation by a professional.

Now please grade this blog post on a scale of 1 to 10. Anonymously.

Reaction to Reactions to Reflections on the Arab Uprisings

In Jay Ulfelder’s reactions to Marc Lynch’s reflections on the Arab Uprisings, I was struck by Ulfelder’s discussion of motivated reasoning. Ulfelder’s notes a problem: “When we try to forecast politics in real time, we tend to conflate our feelings about specific events or trends with their likelihood.” I want Egypt to become democratic after Mubarak’s fall so, gasp, my deeply-informed analysis says Egypt is likely to become democratic. [Or insert your own favorite example.]

Ulfelder proposes a solution, or at least a coherent mitigation plan:

Whenever we’re formulating an analysis or prediction, we can start by ask ourselves what result we hope to see and why, and we can think about how that desire might relate to the conclusions we’re reaching. We can try to imagine how someone with different motivations might view the same situation, or just seek out examples of those alternative views. Finally, we can weight or adjust our own analysis accordingly. Basically, we can try to replicate in our own analysis what “wisdom of crowds” systems do to great effect on a larger scale. This exercise can’t fully escape the cognitive traps to which it responds, but I think it can at least mitigate their influence.

Sounds reasonable.

But what if the extrinsic motivation is the main guide to how we select or interpret the factors that point us toward our conclusion? In any given political situation, scholars can point to a myriad of factors or draw on a wide range of historical precedents. How do we know which tradition is most relevant and which variables to consult? If we want the process to conclude with democracy, that suggests a certain way of looking at the problem.

In other words, maybe the scientific (analytical) process is hopelessly tainted by our own preferences and hopes. Perhaps “feelings” and analytic outcomes co-vary more than we like to admit.

Open Hillel and the potential for change to US Jewish life

I was able to spend half a day at the Open Hillel conference, including speaking on a panel on “Potential Solutions.” One thought: I’d be worried if I were part of the “pro-Israel” American Jewish establishment. These leaders of tomorrow are not going to quietly accept stale dogma.

The students I met and heard talk at the conference are smart, attend elite universities, and are thinking hard about these issues. They are exposed to a range of organizations that not only includes AIPAC/JCRC/Federation/CAMERA etc but also groups with alternate views such as J Street U and Jewish Voice for Peace.

The Jewish tradition was long one of deep intellectual curiosity. In addition, college is one time when many students get to explore ideas. This combination of being party to the Jewish tradition and in college makes for a double dose of curiosity. That’s crucial if one is asking these students to blindly accept narratives or avoid peeking outside the existing opinion tent; they’ll push back, as they did by even establishing Open Hillel and organizing this first conference.

I’m not an expert on American Jewish institutional life. Moreover, there was a selection effect – the kind of student who would be at an Open Hillel conference lends herself/himself to my claims. Students who are outsiders and questioners now certainly might be co-opted later. Fair points.

So rather than an airtight argument, take this as impressionistic…but plausible. Let’s revisit in 20 years and see where things stand.

(I’ll write more about the conference tomorrow @BeaconReader).

Carter and Camp David

A quick thought. I have not read Lawrence Wright’s Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin, and Sadat at Camp David. (Can I claim to be Camp David-ed out?) But in reading a review by Jordan Chandler Hirsch, I was struck by one of the reviewer’s phrasings.

Hirsch does not want us to over-emphasize the US role in bringing about Egyptian-Israeli peace: “Washington, in short, played the role of consolidator, not catalyst.”

In the hopes of not over-emphasizing the US role, the risk is that Hirsch minimizes the US role. In the end, I think two things are true about the diplomacy of 1978-1979:

There would not have been the Camp David Accords and the Egyptian-Israeli treaty had not Egyptian and Israeli interest been moving in the same direction.
There would not have been the Camp David Accords and the Egyptian-Israeli treaty had the US/Carter not mediated (especially in September 1978 and March 1979).

Hirsch’s line does not fully capture my sentiments.

Diskin’s Prayer: On Israel, Gaza, and the next war

Yuval Diskin was head of Israel’s internal security service, the Shin Bet, from 2005-2011. He posted this prayer in Hebrew earlier today on Facebook. 

A Prayer of a Father in a War of No Choice?
by Yuval Diskin

My heart is with my brothers and sisters and the masses of Israeli citizens currently under attack from rockets and missiles. My heart is also with those Palestinians in the Gaza Strip that did not choose this war, have become, against their wills, human shields for the terrorists of Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and the other terror organizations, and have absorbed hundreds of tons of explosives from the air.

My heart is with all the parents whose sons are on the front and who may – in a few more hours or days – enter this miserable place whose name is the Gaza Strip. Everyone who has seen and spent days and nights with sewage flowing in the streets of the miserable refugee camps in Gaza, the West Bank (or for those who want, Judea and Samaria), and Lebanon is able to understand how much we must find a way to resolve this bloody conflict at least partially.

And yes… in the current situation, I think that it is necessary to do everything possible in order to the stop the rockets from the Gaza Strip. And, if there is no other choice, also a ground invasion provided the invasion will have real goals and will not be intended just for the consumption of the incited masses in the hands of the religious fanatics and cynical politicians.

Whoever is familiar with this endless cycle of bloodshed and hatred knows how much the next war is already filled with the blood of the current war. I know and remember this frustrating sense before every operation or war. It is the moment when you realize deep inside yourself the futility and the foolishness of it and, especially, how much in war there are not really any winners…as much as the war escalates and continues, one can see more and more clearly how much it is unnecessary and how much one could have been spared from it if only we had been truly talking out of a desire to solve the conflict, to compromise and build a better future for all of us…

I pray that after everything is finished, we will remember that really at that moment everything starts anew…And when the hourglass is turned over and we begin to count down until the next war, I hope that we will remember that is forbidden for us and for our enemies to pay attention to the same religious fanatics and war-mongering politicians seeking to satisfy the lust of their supporters – on both sides. And how much it is preferable to sit and to resolve what is possible in this bloody conflict.

Until then, I offer a deep prayer that peace and quiet will return quickly to the citizens of Israel in the south, the center, and the north, and that all our regular, reserve, and career soldiers return home in peace, including our four beloved sons. Let it be.