By Harold Young of Austin Peay State University

“Expectations should not always be taken as reality; because you never know when you will be disappointed.”  ― Samuel P. Huntington

MPSA Conference 2018 is here: What have you done for me lately?

I must admit I am sometimes coy in responding to the question, “So, what do you do?” When I say I am a professor of political science and law, the response is two-fold. First, people assume I am an expert in party politics. Second, they assume I have very easy, concrete solutions to what they perceive as the problems in politics–and even the world. Invariably, I start with the standard refrain: “Well, party politics is not my area of expertise but…” I bet this is familiar to many of you. These questions about our role as political scientists outside the classrooms, conferences and our research, are not new.

Political scientists study the origin, development, and operation of political systems. They research political ideas and analyze governments, policies, political trends, and related issues. (Bureau of Labor Statistics – Occupational Outlook Handbook).

But what do these things mean in, and for, “the real world”? First, they should encourage us to reflect critically on the tertiary institutions we inhabit, considering the current domestic and international instability. Smith (2018) suggests that academia is experiencing internal decay and is under attack from without which threatens its future. Second, what do we offer the public sphere based on the knowledge we generate and the citizens we graduate? The public may well ask: “What have you done for me lately?” What we are not doing is running for elected office. The last president with an advanced degree in political science was Woodrow Wilson (1856 – 1924) who graduated from John Hopkins University with a PhD in political science. Currently, there are NO senators and only FOUR representatives at the national level with PhDs in political science. Since we cannot all run for public office, be a Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski,  Madeleine Albright, Condoleezza Rice or have a TV show like Fareed Zakaria, how can we be conduits of our research to contribute to public discourse and the greater good of society?

It is safe to say I do not have a pat answer or the specific approach for political scientists. There are, however, many examples of those who successfully combine knowledge, teaching, research and public engagement. The two examples I choose, demonstrate the power of big ideas shared with the world and personal involvement in ways each felt they could do the most good. Samuel P. Huntington (1928 – 2009) encapsulated a rare balance of teaching, research, publication (e.g., The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late 20th Century and The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order ) and personal involvement in numerous influential public policy forums and institutions. Constantly thought of as provoking and controversial, Huntington is an icon and widely read, praised and criticized. Second, Fernando Henrique Cardoso (1931- ) is a sociologist who returned to Brazil from exile in 1968 to help establish the Brazilian Center for Analysis and Planning and serve as president of Brazil from 1995 to 2003. His domestic legacy is complemented by his contributions to political science, particularly by one of his many books, Dependency and Development in Latin America (1979). This is still required or highly recommended reading for Latin Americanists and those interested in the developing world.

In his discussion of the success of Singapore, mathematics professor, John Allen Paulos, remarks, “There is certainly no requirement for a Saporean science background, but scientifically literate government leaders who push for evidence-based policies and demonstrate a scientific outlook are needed more than glib panderers with attitude.” So, as we prepare for MPSA 2018, I suggest we ask ourselves, what role should we play in society outside the arguably ivory towers of academia? I am looking forward considering several things: (1) the state of research in present political environment; (2) the tension between political science research and politics (Aron 2011); (3) the mood of my colleagues in the current political environment; (4) interdisciplinary research and (5) the future of our calling.

The 2018 MPSA conference comes at a crucial time in the history of our nation and the world. The political divides are deep and wide with some people are looking for answers that can bridge the gaps and salve the wounds. As political scientists, what can we offer and how do we engage with our spheres of influence?

At a bare minimum, we need to have an opening line when asked, “What have you done for me lately?”

About the Author: Harold Young is an Assistant Professor at Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tennessee. His research focuses on Public Law and examines an American and international perspective on judicial institutional changes and decision-making. Previously, he worked as a health communications manager, a social worker and practiced law.