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The First Rule of Public Scholarship? Nobody Knows Anything

Don’t frame scholarship as a way to “make a difference”
By Rick Hess — January 15, 2019 5 min read
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Public scholarship is a tricky business. A desire to influence public policy can lead researchers to describe their findings in deceptively simple and sweeping ways. Personal passion can lead scholars to engage in nasty and vitriolic debate. Professional pressures can encourage researchers to garb important findings in indecipherable jargon.

Every year, I find myself reflecting on all of this anew as I compile the annual RHSU Edu-Scholar rankings. In this exercise, with the assistance of the star-studded RHSU Selection Committee and a few hard-working research assistants, I identify and rank 200 of the nation’s leading education scholars for the contribution they make to the larger world of policy and practice. The full rankings (and all the salacious details governing the process) can be found at Education Week‘s “Rick Hess Straight Up” opinion blog.

Meanwhile, though I lack any easy answers to the challenges posed when researchers enter the public square, I can share a few hard-earned lessons that may help some negotiate the shoals of public scholarship.

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Education Week Commentary teamed up with Frederick M. Hess to ask four accomplished scholars a simple question: What’s the best advice you’ve ever gotten on how to be a public scholar?

Read the full package, along with original analysis of this year’s new Edu-Scholar data by the Education Week Research Center.

For those who see scholarship as a chance to “make a difference,” a sense of proportion is helpful. When I was starting my doctorate, I remember telling a mentor that I regretted leaving the classroom, but figured that now I could have a “broader” impact. His eyes twinkled as he said, “You think that way because you are still young. There are always trade-offs. You can have a profound impact on the lives of 30 students. Or you can change a law and, maybe, have a tiny, indirect impact on lots of students.”

If you treat those who see things differently with respect, you may be surprised how often they respond in kind. I hear time after time from thinkers frustrated that skeptical audiences of educators or policymakers “just don’t get it” and “don’t want to listen.” Yet I recall several years ago, when delivering a book talk to an assemblage of Chicago teachers, one asked if I agreed with “deformers” that districts should fire more teachers. I said, “Yep,” prompting an angry explosion. I kept my cool and said, “Look, even teachers say that 5 percent of the teachers in their school deserve an ‘F.’ The average Fortune 500 firm fires 1 to 2 percent of employees a year. Districts are firing less than 1 percent of teachers. I think that should probably be closer to 2 percent.” The ensuing discussion was calm, even constructive.

The point: You see the world in certain ways. Others can reasonably see it very differently. Their challenges can provide an opportunity for insight and understanding, if you’re open to it.

You see the world in certain ways. Others can reasonably see it very differently."

It can be easy to inherit likes and dislikes from allies and mentors, to start thinking that “these” people are on my side and “those” aren’t. Since my side is full of smart, caring people, those on the other side must be mean-spirited hacks.

For instance, I think back to one of my first school choice conclaves, when the convener kicked things off by saying, “It’s wonderful to be among so many impassioned warriors for children. We’ve got the angels with us right here.” I remember wondering if I was in the wrong room, as I didn’t feel much like either a warrior or an angel. I would later learn that just about any gathering can sound like this (though the identity of the good guys and the bad guys tends to flip, depending on who is hosting). Meanwhile, I kept meeting supposedly awful people who seemed both decent and reasonable. Try to make it a point to judge for yourself.

When you’re presented as an expert, people treat your most banal utterances as borne of expertise—which makes it easy to become self-impressed and mistake imprudence for insight. Years ago, I spent a week traveling across South Korea for the U.S. State Department. I did one public briefing that still makes me shake my head. Asked by a reporter about South Korea’s higher education reforms, I somehow wound up on a tangent about the benefits of the geographic dispersion of U.S. universities and the possible lessons for Seoul-centric South Korea. While I didn’t actually know what I was talking about, it all sounded vaguely plausible.

The next morning, my interpreter greeted me with a newspaper opened to my headshot and an energetic story about the American “expert” (that’d be me) urging the government to revamp its approach to university reform. We headed back to the ministry to smooth things over. The strangest thing? I resented the pushback. On the car ride over, I realized I was now invested in this spur-of-the-moment, tossed-off notion. If I could drink my ill-considered Kool-Aid so quickly, just imagine how easy it is for experts to wind up captives of the ideas that have consumed their professional lives.

Remember that, in any field, research eventually influences policy and practice, but usually after a long and gradual accumulation of evidence. Think about the research on the health effects of tobacco, where a body of research ultimately swayed the public and shaped policy on smoking—in spite of tobacco companies’ frenzied, richly funded efforts. Yet that shift was the product of a sea of studies by hundreds of researchers over several decades. When education types assert that something “works,” that kind of thing is hardly ever what they have in mind.

Rather, such claims are frequently based on a handful of studies conducted by a small coterie of researchers. When frustrated that public officials “aren’t following the research,” it’s helpful to recall that it’d be disconcerting if a handful of studies was enough to override a lifetime of accumulated experience, knowledge, and judgment.

Screenwriter William Goldman famously said of Hollywood, “Nobody knows anything.” His point? For all the slick analyses and industry jargon, nobody in Hollywood really knows why some movies succeed and some don’t. I’ve found that Goldman’s wisdom applies widely in education. People will tell you why this district should be a national model or that superintendent is a genius. Much of the time, the endorsement rests more on a pet project or a favorable impression than on a deep sense of what’s going on.

Bottom line: There’s a lot of noise out there. Try to tune it out. After all, one of the most useful insights I ever got was from the mentor who murmured, when he noticed me eyeballing the clock during an endless meeting, “We’re not done yet. Everything’s been said, but everyone hasn’t said it.” In this noisy age, I suspect that students, schools, and the nation will be well-served if public scholars do their best to embrace the quiet virtues of reflection, civility, and wisdom.

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A version of this article appeared in the January 16, 2019 edition of Education Week as What I’ve Learned the Hard Way About Public Scholarship

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