Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Policy

Do Policy Schools Still Have a Point?

| Sep. 08, 2023

Reflections of a career-long public policy professor at a time of global upheaval.

Classes started a couple of weeks ago, and I had a weird thought as the academic year began. I've spent most of my career teaching at schools of public policy (first at Princeton and later here at Harvard). These schools exist to prepare students for jobs in the public sector, although many graduates end up working in other capacities at some point in their careers. Was it possible, I wondered, that my faculty colleagues and I were imparting a body of knowledge and skills whose relevance would diminish rapidly in an era of accelerating change? Were we missing opportunities to help our students develop other capacities that might be of increasing value in tomorrow's strange new world? Should the conventional approach to public policy pedagogy be reimagined, or at least given some serious tweaks? Having lived through several "curriculum reforms" in the past, I wondered if our efforts had gone far enough.

A bit of background. Public policy schools have been a growth industry in higher education for several decades. Although a handful of these programs can be traced back to before World War II, they've become increasingly popular and widespread in recent years. The Princeton School of Public and International Affairs, the Harvard Kennedy School, the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse, France's École Nationale d’Administration, and a few others have been around for many decades, but the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago, Oxford's Blavatnik School of Government, the Hertie School in Berlin, the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M, and many others are more recent creations.

These schools all have their own special qualities, but there are also some powerful similarities. Most of them try to impart certain basic analytical skills deemed necessary for the effective conduct of public policy, typically some combination of economics, statistics, political analysis, ethics, leadership training, and management. They also give students opportunities to acquire substantive expertise in particular policy domains (national security policy, local government, human rights, public finance, the environment, etc.), while developing their team-building, writing, and speaking skills and studying how the sausage gets made in different political systems.

Despite local variations, these programs all assume there is a body of academic knowledge that can help would-be public leaders understand the world in which they are operating and devise effective solutions to current and future public problems. And implicit in that assumption is the further belief that knowledge derived from past human experience will remain accurate and relevant for the new issues that will be coming down the pike. In short, the faculty who construct these programs typically think they have discovered enduring laws of human behavior (e.g., "supply and demand," "the balance of power," “collective goods theory,” etc.) that will continue to operate in the future much as they have done in the past. They also think that exposing students to past cases where leaders had to address some complex problem will provide lessons that will come in handy in the students' future careers. Learn these tools and absorb these cases, and you'll be ready for anything.

Or so we tend to think, but I wonder. What if we have entered a world that is being transformed in ways that make today's knowledge less useful or relevant?...

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Walt, Stephen M.“Do Policy Schools Still Have a Point?.” Foreign Policy, September 8, 2023.

The Author

Stephen Walt