Are Academics Academic?

Scholar and His Books by Gerbrand van den Eeckhout – Public Domain

The dictionary defines academic as “educational, scholastic,” as well as “not of practical relevance; of only theoretical interest.” After spending a week at an academic conference with eminent university scholars of international relations, I find it appropriate to question the relationship between the two definitions. Were the scholars and their scholastic writings “not of practical relevance” and “only of theoretical interest”?

The formal study of international relations is a modern discipline. The oldest department in Europe was founded in 1919 at the University of Aberystwyth in Wales. The oldest on the Continent is the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva inaugurated in 1927. The latter was supposed to have an input into the work of the League of Nations and had a long tradition of training Swiss diplomats.

Many of the schools of international relations, or now sometimes called global studies, try to combine research and degree-granting teaching with practical field work to bridge the gap. The Association of Professional Schools of International Affairs (APSIA), for example, has thirty-eight member institutions throughout the world including the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO). As opposed to traditional academic masters, some APSIA schools offer degrees in public administration or public policy. These professional schools often have former diplomats teaching as adjunct professors.

International Relations is the academic field of international relations. The annual meeting of the International Studies Association, this year in Toronto, was not for diplomats or practitioners – although there were some U.S. State Department officials presenting. The conference was for academics researching and teaching international relations.

What were the scholars interested in? Largely dominated by North Americans, the conference had many panels on the decline of the liberal international order established after 1945. Questions about U.S. isolationism complemented the rise of China as well as the limitations of multilateralism in a world of increasing nationalism.

Right-wing populism was a recurring theme. Rational explanations were given to analyze emotional anti-globalization, including Brexit and growing illiberal democracies in several European countries.

Emotions have become more and more important in scholarly analysis. Following the lead of psychologists such as Daniel Goleman who wrote on emotional intelligence and the Nobel Prize winning behavioral economists Daniel Kahneman, Robert Shiller and Richard Thaler, IR academics are beginning to move away from “rational choice theory” to a more humane analysis of human and state behavior.

Beyond the human, there was a fascination with artificial intelligence. Issues of war and peace have always been determined by people. Now, some asked, what would happen if an artificial intelligence (AI) machine used an algorithm to send drones to attack another country? What would happen if war and peace were determined by non-human actors who suddenly made decisions beyond human control? (On a more policy-oriented note, a recent meeting of experts in Geneva debated the relevance of traditional humanitarian norms for autonomous lethal weapon systems.)

Academics have different interests from practitioners. Publications, tenure and mentoring students are university responsibilities, not responsibilities for governing the world. (It is an open question whether academics sub-consciously want to govern the world. Harvard University has a rule – known as the Kissinger rule – that faculty can only take two years off to do other activities such as government work in Washington. David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest is a damning recounting of how the Harvard elite failed to understand the Vietnam War because of its arrogance.)

General theories abound among scholars. Realists, Constructivists, English School, Liberal Internationalists (among others) divide the IR discipline. Great Debates have come and gone; such as the first between Realists and Idealists, the second between Traditionalists and Scientists, and the third between Rationalists and Reflectivists. Iconic texts by Thucydides, Thomas Hobbes, Niccolò Machiavelli, Hedley Bull and Hans Morgenthau are regularly reread, revisited and re-interpreted. New schools of interpretation pop up (“the turn to the aesthetic”), often with very short life spans.

The desire to explain the political world attracts; many young students attended the meeting. But explaining is not understanding, and theory is not practice. The two definitions of academic remain a dividing wall that separates IR from international relations. International Relations remains academic, in both senses of the word.

More articles by:
Weekend Edition
September 20, 2019
Friday - Sunday
Ismael Hossein-Zadeh
Unipolar Governance of the Multipolar World
Rob Urie
Strike for the Environment, Strike for Social Justice, Strike!
Miguel Gutierrez
El Desmadre: The Colonial Roots of Anti-Mexican Violence
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Pompeo and Circumstance
Andrew Levine
Why Democrats Really Should Not All Get Along But Sometimes Must Anyway
Louis Proyect
A Rebellion for the Wild West
T.J. Coles
A Taste of Their Own Medicine: the Politicians Who Robbed Iranians and Libyans Fear the Same for Brexit Britain
H. Bruce Franklin
How We Launched Our Forever War in the Middle East
Lee Hall
Mayor Obedience Training, From the Pet Products Industry
Louis Yako
Working in America: Paychecks for Silence
Michael D. Yates
Radical Education
Jonathan Cook
Israelis Have Shown Netanyahu the Door. Can He Inflict More Damage Before He Exits?
Valerie Reynoso
The Rising Monopoly of Monsanto-Bayer
John Steppling
American Psychopathy
Ralph Nader
25 Ways the Canadian Health Care System is Better than Obamacare for the 2020 Elections
Ramzy Baroud
Apartheid Made Official: Deal of the Century is a Ploy and Annexation is the New Reality
Vincent Emanuele
Small Town Values
John Feffer
The Threat of Bolton Has Retreated, But Not the Threat of War
David Rosen
Evangelicals, Abstinence, Abortion and the Mainstreaming of Sex
Judy Rohrer
“Make ‘America’ White Again”: White Resentment Under the Obama & Trump Presidencies
John W. Whitehead
The Police State’s Language of Force
Kathleen Wallace
Noblesse the Sleaze
Farzana Versey
Why Should Kashmiris be Indian?
Nyla Ali Khan
Why Are Modi and His Cohort Paranoid About Diversity?
Shawn Fremstad
The Official U.S. Poverty Rate is Based on a Hopelessly Out-of-Date Metric
Mel Gurtov
No War for Saudi Oil!
Robert Koehler
‘I’m Afraid You Have Humans’
David Swanson
Every Peace Group and Activist Should Join Strike DC for the Earth’s Climate
Scott Owen
In Defense of Non-violent Actions in Revolutionary Times
Jesse Jackson
Can America Break Its Gun Addiction?
Priti Gulati Cox
Sidewalk Museum of Congress: Who Says Kansas is Flat?
Mohamad Shaaf
The Current Political Crisis: Its Roots in Concentrated Capital with the Resulting Concentrated Political Power
Max Moran
Revolving Door Project Probes Thiel’s White House Connection
Arshad Khan
Unhappy India
Nick Pemberton
Norman Fucking Rockwell! and 24 Other Favorite Albums
Nicky Reid
The Bigotry of ‘Hate Speech’ and Facebook Fascism
Paul Armentano
To Make Vaping Safer, Legalize Cannabis
Jill Richardson
Punching Through Bad Headlines
Jessicah Pierre
What the Felicity Huffman Scandal Says About America
John Kendall Hawkins
Draining the Swamp, From the Beginning of Time
Julian Rose
Four Funerals and a Wedding: A Brief History of the War on Humanity
Victor Grossman
Film, Music and Elections in Germany
Charles R. Larson
Review: Ahmet Altan’s “I Will Never See the World Again”
David Yearsley
Jazz is Activism
Elliot Sperber
Captains of Industry