The independent news organization of Duke University

Policy students misunderstand nature of leadership

Definitions of public policy: The art of decision-making. Psychological modelling. An interesting twist on political science. One of the things you do when you don't know what to be because when you're done there are bound to be lots of things to do. Or, learning leadership-the textbook approach.

For me at least, Public Policy Studies is a little of all those things and some others as well. However, sitting in the back of one of my PPS classes last fall, I realized the universal implications of all these grandiose descriptions of public policy. For many students in that class, public policy became a genteel code for saying: "Isn't the world neat, I wish I lived in the sixties when everybody was so nice and aren't we all just swell." Allow me to explain.

I was sitting unsuspectingly in the back of class when the professor asked us a quesion that got me thinking. The class was discussing a book about the civil rights era and the question concerned a photograph that depicted the inside of a Jackson, Mississippi restaurant where a desegregation protest was taking place.

The picture showed the eight protestors, four black and four white, sitting together at the exclusively white lunch counter. Behind them stood counter-protestors dumping food on the desegregationists' heads. At first glance this action was the compelling part of the picture, however our professor redirected our attention.

Apparently drawn by the commotion, about 60 people had crammed into the corners of the restaurant to watch. The expressions on their faces ranged from sympathetic to downright amused, and they all had just one thing on their mind-Gee, look at what`s going on.

Our professor asked us who we would be in this picture. The response sent me reeling: virtually all 70 students in that classromm said they would be among the protestors desegregating the lunch counter. A warm "Leave It To Beaver" like feeling swept through the class, and someone suggested we form a candle light friendship circle in the middle of the room. Could this really be true? Could everyone sitting in that classroom be the type of leader who stands up for what he or she believes in, no matter the consequences?

As students of public policy, we all easily answered such a difficult question because of the incompleteness of our perspectives. As future leaders and decision-makers, we have been taught statistics, cost-benefit analysis, economic utilization theories-and then we think we are ready for the world. However, no matter how long we do it, hovering over documents in the basement of Perkins will not make civil rights protestors of any of us.

And while this may not be a startling discovery for most of you, I have slowly some to realize that being a good public policy student has little to no relationship to being a good leader. Schools of public policy have become so preoccupied with scientific models of decision-making, that sincerity and responsibility have often been replaced by quantitative data and numerical interpretation.

That's not to say these things aren't important, but many students seem to have forgotten that these scientific methods of analysis are simply a part of politics, not the art of politics itself. These things are tools to help decision-makers, not to supplant them.

Public policy coursework teaches us to examine the world sitting at a desk, standing at a podium or constructing a memo; but this is only half the game. A leader must be a shepherd, not a statistician, a decision-maker, not a pollster. We must be willing to put down our textbooks, move past "Leave it to Beaver" and teach ourselves to be both practitioner and politician, leader and follower.

As students we must occassionally leave our comfortable podiums and take a peek out into the world.

Maybe then we'll realize that, like it or not, many of us are too busy completing today's problem sets and homework assignments to even begin thinking about desegregating tomorrow's lunch counters.

Mark Grazman is a Trinity senior.


Share and discuss “Policy students misunderstand nature of leadership” on social media.