Mike O’Hare’s essay on the different versions of “authority” created by legitimately held power on the one hand and by knowledge on the other quotes Mark Moore’s undying question to teachers, “By what right do you hold the chalk?” Perhaps that question should be addressed explicitly in the classroom more often than it is, with the instructor making it clear what authority is claimed, and on what basis.
When I teach methods of policy analysis, I start out by quoting the great definition of the term “course” from the Harvard catalogue: “A course is a group of people studying a subject with someone who has studied it before.” Note, I say, not with “someone who is the world’s ultimate authority on that subject,” or “someone with infallible knowledge of the subject”, but merely “someone who has studied it before.” I then explain that I studied it so much my teachers finally gave me a doctorate to make me stop. Then comes the hard part.
Policy analysis is about determining which course of action better serves the public interest in some set of circumstances. But of course that is also the subject-matter of actual political contestation, and policy analysts cannot legitimately claim that their opinions – inevitably conditioned by their prejudices, their interests, and the limitations of their knowledge and experience as well as by their analytic skill – ought to become the rule of action in a democracy. That would be true even if – per impossibile – the policy-analytic tradition embraced all of the possibly valid forms of argument about what should be done. It follows that I would be going beyond my rights if I required students to agree, or pretend to agree, with my actual opinions about inequality or pollution control or even crime control.
But – I say to the class – policy analysis is a discipline of thought, the product of a tradition. As the person in the room who has studied that discipline before, I claim the authority to say what, within that tradition, constitutes or does not constitute a valid argument. Two policy analysts discussing crime may not come to the same conclusion about the optimal level of incarceration, but they will discuss the question in the same way – using, for example, terms such as “optimal” – and that way will be different from the way in which two criminologists or two cultural critics would discuss it. My job, standing there with a piece of chalk in my hand, is to show the students what it would mean to contribute to that policy-analytic conversation.