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.