Preparing students to face the unknown unknowns

The complaint that international affairs education is in crisis is not new. Its most recent iteration came after the publication of the rankings of international studies programmes in the United States from the Teaching, Research and International Policy Project at the College of William and Mary.

Earlier this year, two prominent international affairs scholars, Steve Walt and Frank Gavin, contributed to what seems to be a perennial discussion about the state of the field. In his Foreign Policy article entitled “America’s IR Schools Are Broken”, Steve Walt argues that international studies education is in crisis because it doesn’t pay enough attention to history and theory.

Frank Gavin, in contrast, argues that the interdependent nature of the world calls decisively for people to study international affairs, and sees room to be optimistic about novel teaching practices in international studies programmes as long as those programmes free themselves from the constraints of academic disciplines.

Both Walt and Gavin, however, focus too narrowly and miss the bigger picture. The problem with international studies education today is that educators are encouraged or compelled to instil facts and to train their students in marketable skills. The goal, and what schools sell to their prospective students, is well-paying jobs upon graduation.

Certainly, there is nothing wrong with gainful employment. But too often, a focus on facts and skills crowds out the cultivation of judgment, which prepares students to deal with the ‘unknown unknowns’ of the future.

Our vocation as teachers is not, and has not been for some time now, to serve as mere ‘subject-matter experts’ or trainers in mental gymnastics. Instead, our most important role is to give students the opportunity to acquire and refine the critical intellectual dispositions that will allow them to take informed and defensible positions on complex issues.

And, unless we keep that vocation front and centre, we will fail to equip our students with the dispositions they need to tackle the challenges of the 21st century.

Preparing for unpredictability

Because our students are unlikely to work in a stable and unchanging environment, we must prepare them to confront fundamental uncertainties and unpredictable events. Facts and skills are insufficient.

They need to be able to exercise judgment, which goes beyond simply reciting historical facts or accomplishing some well-defined task. On the contrary, judgment is the capacity to thoughtfully select a course of action in the absence of definitive evidence or established plans. But how do you cultivate judgment?

Tools such as seminars can help here, since collectively wrestling with a complex issue over a common text can be a laboratory for developing and refining a capacity for judgment. Academic disciplines such as philosophy and sociology also deserve a prominent place in international studies education in order to help develop critical thinking and address questions of ethical values and social and cultural commitments.

Navigating an international environment characterised by an irreducible diversity of perspectives and traditions also requires the capacity to deal productively with these differences – cross-cultural and intercultural communication need to be central to an international education in the contemporary world.

Facing novel challenges

Implicit in the criticisms of Walt and Gavin is the notion that the role of higher education is still firmly bounded by a hierarchical relationship between academic knowledge and worldly practice. This is misleading. The real world is never going to look exactly like any of our academic accounts of it, and our most important task as teachers in international studies is to help our students develop the resilience and creative capacity to deal effectively with novel challenges.

This means giving them facts and skills, yes, but more importantly, it means giving them the opportunity to develop the capacity for judgment as to which facts and which skills matter when, in the fluid, dynamic and opaque environment of contemporary international affairs.

If we concentrate on our truest vocation – to instil in our students the habits of mind that will serve them in the wider world – we will come to realise that what is broken in our colleges and universities goes far beyond international studies.

The deeper problem is that higher education as a whole is in danger of losing the plot and becoming either a repository of facts or a mere adjunct to the world of work. International studies, as a field that is not and never has been a single academic discipline or even a purely academic field of study, but is also something more than mere job skills training, may indeed point the way to a more impactful future across the entire campus.

Patrick Thaddeus Jackson is professor of international studies and associate dean for curriculum and learning, School of International Service, American University, United States.