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Rice discusses pitfalls of teaching foreign policy making

People love to learn from those who have "been there and done that" but classroom teachers should resist the temptation to simply tell war stories, Stanford Provost Condoleezza Rice, a professor of political science, said on Oct. 22 at the first session of this year's Teachers on Teaching lecture series. Sponsored by the Center for Teaching and Learning, the series gets Stanford's award-winning teachers to share their teaching philosophy and techniques with the wider campus community.

Rice became interested in her specialty of Soviet studies as a student of Joseph Korbel, the father of Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. She said her teaching style has evolved with her life experiences. She relied heavily on the academic literature in political science and history when at age 25 she began her classroom career at Stanford in 1981. She won two teaching awards before leaving Stanford to get practical experience in government by working for three years in the Pentagon and White House. As special assistant for security affairs to George Bush, she was on hand for the 1990 reunification of Germany and later wrote a book about it.

After those experiences, she said, she is far more likely to have her students read foundational documents and simulate making key decisions in history. "It is increasingly difficult to generate in students a sense of the complexity involved in foreign policy with the methods available in the literature of political science and history," she said.

Rice teaches mostly what she called "applied" political science courses, such as American security, and Soviet and European foreign policy. When she first came back, she said, she was still trying to make sense of her own experience and may have relied too much on "telling war stories" about the real world of policy making.

Now, she avoids organizing courses around current events, she said, because students come with too many borrowed opinions about them and not enough facts to support them or a sense of history. "It's important for them to know if Bismarck or Wilhelm came first," she said, citing the axiom "what happened today cannot affect what happened yesterday." Her current techniques include having students research, write, and discuss or role play historical foreign policy decisions. "When you write, you are more certain you are right than if you just have to say it. They do take time to check the facts."

The academic literature, she said, often misses the complexity of foreign policy making. States are seen as billiard balls, she said. "We talk about the balance of power and the clash of interests as if we didn't care what was going on inside of them." Domestic policy is discussed not as a constraint on foreign policy makers, but as the "sum total of domestic institutions," such as Congress, bureaucratic agencies and interest groups. Students do not get from it, she said, a good understanding of how a country's foreign policy is complicated by different issue that range from national security to agriculture to moral values.

Political science literature is particularly poor, she said, at explaining the roles of the press, personality and symbolism in policy.

It ignores that foreign policy decisions must be ready by 11 a.m. Washington time to meet the press cycles around the world, she said, and that people involved often feel a sense of "urgency, panic and even fear."

Personalities helped shape Britain's policy on German reunification, she said. "Margaret Thatcher flat couldn't stand Helmut Kohl," she said, but such emotions are not usually accounted for in the "orderly, post hoc recreations that we teach."

Symbols also matter, she said, which is why she uses TV news imagery to help illustrate points. Deciding whether to celebrate the anniversary of World War II in Moscow or London is a major decision for a president because of its symbolic power, she said.

Rice assigns reading from foundational documents these days, she said, such as Federalist Paper No. 10 when studying armed forces policy, or the debates between Stalin and Trotsky when studying Soviet foreign policy. Such documents help students understand a country's policymakers better on their own terms, she said, and also give them a sense of the long reach of history.

Role playing also illustrates the function of psychology, she said. "It's interesting to watch students come to terms with how they behave" in role playing sessions. "They will say, 'I never thought I could behave that way.' "


By Kathleen O'Toole


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