More Details on PRGS Diversity

First Component: An Educational Experience Where Diversity Is a Strength

Diversity and the Field of Study


Policy research that makes a difference will focus on such aspects as

  • better measures of quality of service and quality of life,
  • better estimates of institutional performance that take into account intervening variables,
  • improved incentives within and across institutions, and
  • better ways of taking sociocultural diversity into account.

The emerging agenda gives even greater salience to such things as stakeholders, institutions, and sociocultural settings. Policy research will feature a renewed appreciation of context and process. The idea of "size-up-and-solve social science" – Clifford Geertz’s memorable put-down – will be replaced by one that recognizes that proffered solutions must be adapted to diverse situations and settings. Policy research may become more embedded in relationships, and its clients will be multiple (public, private, non-profit – sometimes all three together).

Note the relevance of these trends to diversity. As our course work gives ever greater attention to these aspects of policy research, it will give more and more substantive attention to the diversity of stakeholders, institutions, sociocultural settings, and partnerships, both actual and potential. On-the-job training will increasingly involve these issues. The School recognizes that exploring these matters will be greatly enhanced by a student body that is diverse in sociocultural backgrounds, institutional experiences, and policy interests.

We also believe that doing research on many of these matters will require greater analytical and mathematical sophistication--for example, to engage with the new institutional economics, with the information revolution, with the estimation of "interaction effects" among policy choices and sociocultural settings, and with the modeling of complex adaptive systems ranging from inner city dynamics to battlefields to learning behavior in a diverse economy. For the new agenda, PRGS students will have to have ever better skills in economics, statistics, and modeling.

Is there a tension here, between more attention to culture, process, and institutions and more attention to analytical methodologies? Some people think so, and they pose a kind of C.P. Snow dichotomy between analytical approaches and contextual ones. But we want to marry the two. For the next generation of policy analysts, both analytical prowess and sociocultural sensitivity will be crucial. Again, this underscores the central importance of a diverse student body.

Diversity and the Way the Educational Experience Is Organized

Within a given subject or specialty, the value of diversity probably varies with the way the educational experience is organized. For example, diversity probably has less of a chance to make a difference when the predominant mode of learning is the lecture, when all academic work is carried out at the individual student level, when the objective is passing down received knowledge instead of developing sophistication and creativity, and where there is fairly clearly a correct answer or approach as opposed to an area where wisdom clearly comes from the critical appreciation of different approaches.

In each of these areas, the PRGS experience is organized to make diversity a strength.

Modes of learning. At PRGS the lecture is one of the less important modes. PRGS classes are small. Students are able and mature, so there is little problem in motivating them to master material. A key pedagogical objective is to inspire their creativity. Consequently, because of the School’s scale, students, and educational objectives, most classes at PRGS emphasize discussion and debate, wherein a diverse class is an educational strength. Even in the School’s methodological courses, there are many applications to real problems, where exposure to diverse perspectives and experiences helps students and faculty members to discern the methodologies’ uses and limitations.

A unique feature of the PRGS educational experience is the importance of working with senior mentors doing real policy research. We call this on-the-job training (OJT), which is perhaps too industrial a metaphor. OJT almost always involves students in interdisciplinary teams. They participate in tasks ranging from preparing proposals to delivering briefings. They gain experience working with clients in the public and the private sectors, at the local, national, and international levels. In these activities, diversity is a source of strength and of learning.

Individual and group work. Students are responsible for their individual mastery, and they receive individual grades in their classes. But a major mode of learning is group work. For example, in the four "accelerated OJT" mini-courses that students take during their first two quarters at PRGS, they work together with leading RAND researchers on emerging issues where the answers and the approaches are not well understood. Sometimes in subgroups, sometimes as a class, they work together trying to figure out what kinds of research would help illuminate these issues. In this joint assessment of different ways of looking at issues, the class’s diversity is a powerful strength.

Passing along received knowledge vs. developing critical skills and sophistication. The PRGS experience embraces the latter. True, the School emphasizes the acquisition of world-class skills in economics, statistics, and modeling. But most courses offered at PRGS try to convey sophistication rather than to stack students’ minds with six boxes of knowledge.

For example, the course "Behavioral Science Perspectives" eschews the idea of a survey course, in favor of pursuing in depth a few topics where students can appreciate how behavioral science is done, how it gets applied and misapplied to policy issues, what sorts of debates characterize the field, and how evidence is marshaled and how ideology matters or does not. The course "Science and Technology" looks at one example and helps students get inside scientific debates and demystify them, showing how these debates connect and fail to connect with the policy process, understanding where research does and does not seem to make a difference.

The same broad philosophy holds for most PRGS policy workshops in areas such as health, education, demography, intelligence policy, criminal justice, and international security. The instructors do not see their tasks as providing a survey of the broad waterfront, as making sure students have covered all the major topics and themes (and "passing along received knowledge"). Instead, instructors choose a few topics they believe are particularly illuminating about the promise and pitfalls of analysis to deal with important policy questions. They choose topics where students can get to the state-of-the-art, and maybe help to push it a bit further. This philosophy means that discussion and debate are crucial, and therefore that diversity in the classroom again is a strength.

A correct answer vs. an appreciation of different approaches. Even in methodological courses, PRGS emphasizes different ways of looking at data, of modeling a problem, of correcting for selection effects, of characterizing aggregate demand, and so forth. Our instructors try to help students live through an apparent paradox:

At the frontiers of our fields are theoretical debates and different approaches to practice, which however we can only fully join after we have attained a level of technical mastery.

From first-year courses on, students both master the tools of the fields they are studying and consider through examples the alternative ways such tools might be used (and yes, misused). Given this way of organizing the educational experience, diversity in the classroom is a big plus.

To summarize, in both what we teach (and will teach) and how we organize the educational experience, PRGS recognizes that a diverse student body enhances learning. Indeed, it is fair to say that we choose what we teach and how in part so that a diverse student body can educate each other and us.

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