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How I became a footnote to history
I’m Paul Musgrave, a political scientist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. This is Systematic Organization, my (mostly) weekly newsletter about my thoughts regarding politics and the study of politics. The newsletter takes its title from a line in The Education of Henry Adams:
Politics, as a practice, whatever its professions, had always been the systematic organization of hatreds, and Massachusetts politics had been as harsh as the climate. The chief charm of New England was harshness of contrasts and extremes of sensibility—a cold that froze the blood, and a heat that boiled it—so that the pleasure of hating—one's self if no better victim offered—was not its rarest amusement; but the charm was a true and natural child of the soil, not a cultivated weed of the ancients.
This week, we’re talking about the politics of the latest front in the culture war: the teaching of American history, and what’s likely to last from this skirmish.
Last month, the U.S. State Department released “The Elements of the China Challenge”, a policy paper meant to propose a “multi-pronged approach” by which the United States can “secure freedom” in the face of (you guessed it) a challenge from China.
The X article it ain’t. It’s a boilerplate recitation of the charge that the People’s Republic aims to supplant what the report calls “the free, open, and rules-based international order that is essential to [free and sovereign nation-states’] security, stability, and prosperity.”
Which—sure, kind of. But that line, which comes on the first page of the report itself, is not the last time a careful reader will note that this report comes from an administration headed by a president whose attitude toward a “rules-based international order” has mostly been f*** that.
(Later on, the report recounts the “conventional wisdom” that supposes China as “best understood in accordance with ideas of reasonable state behavior”, which could also serve as a description of U.S. foreign policy pre-Trump—or, if you’re cynical, pre-Dubya.)
This story, however, has nothing to do with the overall merits of the report or its diagnosis. Instead, it’s the story about how they cited me—and not entirely accurately.
It is, in other words, the story of how I became a literal footnote to history.
Someone more on the ball than I am gave the report a “Washington read” when it came out. (If you don’t know, a “Washington read” means skimming the index and references for your own name and the names of your friends and enemies.) And they let me know—to my shock—that I was in the report.
You see, I’m an international relations scholar and a foreign policy specialist, but I’m not a China expert, despite one semester of studying in Shanghai. So I wasn’t really anticipating that a report about China would engage with any of my work. Still, there I am: footnote 124, citing my essay in Foreign Policy from May 2019 about how “Universities aren’t ready for trade-war casualties”.
Footnote 124, in turn, backs up this sentence from the report’s main text:
Universities’ financial dependence on tuition dollars from China complicates matters: in recent years, American universities have intentionally admitted more Chinese nationals because they, unlike many American students, pay ballooning tuition costs in full.
The context for all of this is a section about how “China’s geopolitical influence stretches deep into America’s backyard” and that “The United States and Canada are by no means exempt from China’s influence operations.” All of this, in turn, is supposed to persuade readers to support the report’s recommendations about how to meet the China challenge.
Two of those recommendations focus on higher education, linking back to the earlier criticism of American colleges’ reliance on international students’ (especially Chinese students’) tuition. Recommendation eight urges the U.S. to train new government officials and public-policy thinkers to “navigate the new era of threats and opportunities.” This specifically includes training in “languages, cultures, and histories” of foes and friends alike. And this is welcome—the long-term defunding of federal investment in such programs has created a gap between support for students undertaking these lengthy and difficult studies, as well as faculty and institutions who could provide them. Of course, the recommendation is light on any specifics about how this could be done or how it should be paid for. Still, it’s a welcome point to see from an administration that’s often seemed hostile to the idea of expertise itself.
The ninth recommendation is the one that brings all the strands of this story back together. This calls for a “reform of American education to enable students to shoulder the enduring responsibilities of citizenship in a free and democratic scholars”. It asserts that “Sinister efforts from abroad seek to sow discord in the United States” (again—this charge of foreign meddling in a document released by the Trump administration). And it concludes that “America’s grade schools, middle schools, high schools, and colleges and universities” have “abandoned well-rounded presentations of America’s founding ideas and constitutional traditions in favor of propaganda aimed at vilifying the nation.”
To address this issue, the report bizarrely argues, universities should rededicate themselves to “serious study of the history of America’s efforts” to live up to the promises of the Declaration of Independence, including “an international order that maintains free and sovereign nation-states.” And it’s compounded with a fine non sequitur: “the United States must rededicate itself to the promotion of excellence in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.”
So far, so banal.
Here’s the thing, though. Serious academics teach their undergraduates to aspire to the same standards they hope to use in their own work. That includes making logical and coherent arguments; backing up claims with evidence; and, of course, referring to others’ arguments accurately.
Footnote 124—the one citing my work—shows that the report didn’t really live up to those standards. And given that this report was supposed to be a big-think piece by serious officials, or at least officials who hold positions that used to be serious, it’s kind of important to get everything right.
It’s true that my Foreign Policy piece details how U.S. colleges came to rely on international students as an important revenue source. Sometimes, that’s has less salubrious aspects, with some institutions mistreating their international students by failing to provide the help they need or with entire institutions preying on international students as their business model. On the whole, though, U.S. higher education’s success in the export business has come from a combination of the status of the United States and the quality of undergraduate education in this sector. And in
Yet the article also demonstrates that the push factors shoving administrators at large universities to pursue international undergraduate student dollars were at least as important. Chief among those push factors highlighted in my article? State and federal government disinvestment in higher education. (At the graduate levels, different factors are at play—including creaming the world’s talent to work in America’s STEM factories.) As I wrote,
As a business strategy for schools, this has been remarkably successful over the past several decades. The governments of countries such as Saudi Arabia and the rising wealth of China and India have supported U.S. higher education just as Washington and state capitals have turned away from funding education directly.
Insinuating that this turn represented a nefarious Communist scheme to poison universities’ purity of essence gets everything backward. To the extent that a government’s decision caused universities to become reliant on foreign governments, well, those decisions were reached in Washington, Albany, Sacramento, and other U.S. capitals.
I’m pretty sure that the authors of the report did what basically everyone on a deadline is tempted to do: throw some search terms into Google and come back with the first reasonable-sounding citations to back up the claim you wanted to make. That’s certainly the kind of procedure that leads to citing an article that fundamentally disagrees with your premise rather than, say, doing the original research yourself to verify whether your claim is true.
But authors really shouldn’t do that. Sure, everyone does it occasionally but it’s still taking a risk—a risk of, say, citing a piece in a footnote that undermines your claims, leaving you open to criticism from the author you’re citing.
And it even lets them jump at the opportunity to make arguments about how your thesis is wrong—about how, for instance, the U.S. should be leveraging its strengths in higher education as part of a new era of great-power competition, or how a new era of great-power competition requires greater state investment in strategic areas, not less. One could even point out that rebuilding the traditional strengths of U.S. higher education require addressing not just institutions’ balance sheets but also those of students—or that there’s a paradox in extolling the virtues of the Constitution when one of its weakest areas is in the provision and oversight of education, including the K-12 levels that make America so weak in STEM education internationally.
One could make all of those arguments. And they wouldn’t just be a footnote.
What I’m Reading
This week, I’ve been reading Lawrence Freedman and Jeffrey Michaels’s The Evolution of Nuclear Strategy (4e).
Freedman and Michaels provide an exhaustive history of states’ experience with the bomb. The focus is on the United States and the Soviet Union, with the United Kingdom receiving just a bit of outsized attention. The discussions of the bureaucratic and especially intellectual history of nuclear establishments in the major powers is top-notch. Some topics, including the history of the South African bomb or Switzerland’s decision to skip building one, receive adequate coverage. Still others, especially the minor Asian powers’ programs (North Korea but also Seoul and Taipei), could have received still more, and Latin America receives scanty coverage.
In all, though, this was an excellent, excellent book, and one that greatly helped me solidify my understanding of nuclear issues. A long read but a must-read.
What You Should Read
A separate reading recommendation for this week: Charles Stevensons’s SECDEF: The Nearly Impossible Job of Secretary of Defense.
This week, everyone’s talking about what it takes to be a good secretary of defense. Stevenson’s book—which deserves both wider readership and a second, updated edition—does a great job of summarizing the challenges and history of the position. Stevenson himself is well placed to write the book; both a longtime scholar of foreign policy process and a former senior legislative aide to prominent senators, Stevenson has a grasp of the political role of the Office of Secretary of Defense and the substantive issues involved. It’s a short guide to the office, the responsibilities, and the many failures of the officeholders through the era just before today.