Renounce Spoonfeeding!; Or, What’s Wrong With International Relations Textbooks Anyway?

Term is upon us, and with it new cohorts of students eager for the accumulated wisdom of IR condensed into textbook form. e-IR recently promoted two such texts, and I took gentle exception.

But what’s so wrong with textbooks anyway? It’s not so much the simplification itself. All theory (including some much-lauded high theory) does that. Nor is it any particular problem with the qualifications of the authors (the contributors to Baylis, Smith and Owens, for example, are pretty well the dominant names in their respective sub-fields).

Still, textbooks do seem to take on a strange epistemic authority, at least in undergraduate study. Confused by the relationship between ethics and self-interest in Morgenthau? Settle it with some bullet-points! IR is a young discipline, and none of its canonical texts approach the difficulty of, say, political, social or cultural theory proper. Any competence is going to come from understanding those texts, so why not do it sooner rather than later? Moreover, the relentless simplifications of the ‘paradigms’ debates (can we drop the mutilation of Kuhn yet?) provide an easy tool for obliterating complexity. This is not unrelated to a patronising attitude towards students, gently shepherded through the early years before being told harsher truths.

Textbooks, especially ones recommended at the start of courses as the intellectual crutches of choice, reinforce those dynamics. But it gets worse. Textbooks also lie.

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Comprador Intellectuals in the Education Crisis

It certainly feels as if things are moving quickly in the fight over the thorough-going recomposition of UK higher education. The scale of occupation and student-led resistance has caught many by surprise. The interpretive battle over ‘violence’ may have performed familiar rituals, but the frequency and militancy of what is going on is new and invigorating. The number of occupations is now considerable, and the leadership of the NUS has been forced into support for tactics and strategy they had previously treated as marginalia. How different it looked in the immediate aftermath of the 10 November actions. The early denunciations of militant protest then seemed to foreshadow the enactment of a reformist middle ground. Aaron Porter gave at least one speech in which he appeared to accept that fees were going to be introduced as planned, and sought to move his energies into getting as much included in the £9,000 fee as possible. He mooted such bold objectives as an end to printing costs and a new universities watchdog to ensure value for money. As if to say, ‘we’ve made our point, now let’s go home’.

Last week’s much smaller protest, and its predictable, petty, kettle, seems to have made all the difference. More walk-outs are planned for today, and doubtless more occupations will follow. This has spooked Clegg to new levels of hysteria, warning that opposition to the cuts will themselves scare off the young, and the poor, and those without sufficient sense to make some back-of-the-envelope calculations as to their eventual debt burden. Obviously, this is true in a rather degraded sense of the word, since without sustained action directed at the proposals, many would not realise the scale of changes until they had already been passed. Verily, ignorance is bliss. Meanwhile, ermine-cloaked colleagues in the blue corner are reduced to crying traitor while the imperatives of civic order require ever more draconian shows of strength.

But where are the academics? Continue reading