Readers of The Boston Globe awoke one morning in 1981 to a peculiarly revealing story about Harvard. It seems that administrators at the John F. Kennedy School of Government were contemplating a name change to bring the school into conformity with Harvard Law School and Harvard Business School, whose professional cachet they envied and whose fund raising was not hampered by association with a political family out of fashion and unloved by many potential conservative benefactors. The new name reportedly was to be simple and politically neutral: the Harvard School of Government.

The mayor of Cambridge, a salty, Italian politician with little taste for hasty pudding, was so dismayed by the matter that he succeeded in changing the name of the street where the school sits from Boylston Street to Kennedy Street, which meant the school would have to put JFK’s name on its stationery whether it wanted to or not. If the mayor was unable to fulfill his hopes of changing Harvard Square to Kennedy Square, the idea of replacing the school’s name never surfaced again, and Harvard administrators now pretend the whole thing was a bad dream.

The reason the incident sticks in my mind is not so much for its ham-handedness (though it surely was that), but for what it says about Harvard’s approach to the real world of politics. There is some confusion at the university over what is political and value-laden; on the one hand, and what is “objective,” “neutral,” and “professional,” on the other, and the confusion takes on importance because the Kennedy School is considered these days to be a Triple-A farm club for the special assistants and professors-turned-policymakers who run so much of Washington.

When the new Kennedy School building was dedicated in 1978, Harvard President Derek Bok said that what was at stake was nothing less than the creation of a “new profession.” The absence of a public policy profession, he added, was “the principal missing link in American higher education today.” Bok’s aim is a school that will benefit government the way business school has . . . uh .. . benefited American business.

Bok’s 1982 book, Beyond the Ivory Tower: Social Responsibilities of a Modern University (Harvard University Press, $15.95), does not deal directly with his dream for a new profession of Kennedy School-trained officials; it is instead an abstract, workmanlike (to put it gently) legal brief in defense of running universities in a nonpolitical way. Bok’s desultory thesis is that the doctrine of institutional neutrality, which he has long used as a way of boring anti-South Africa activists into apathy, is an imperfect but essential approach in all cases except those involving academic freedom and the health of the university. He approvingly quotes the late Fritz Machlup, the Princeton professor who said, “The institution or its faculty as a body has no brain and no heart, and should have no mouth either.. . .” Universities, Bok writes, should lobby for higher funding for themselves, but never on political issues (short of Nazism).

As for college presidents, Bok believes they should confine themselves to subjects on which “they could claim to have considerable knowledge and expertise.” This sets him quite apart from great Harvard presidents of the past (Charles Eliot was one of Grover Cleveland’s biggest supporters), but it is not atypical of the antiseptic, eunuch like behavior that now passes for a sense of responsibility at major institutions. Bok is scornful of faculty and student petitions on political subjects: “Many votes are cast and much debate carried on by people having no special knowledge of the subject involved.”

Special knowledge. This was the specific message of Bok’s speech at the dedication of the new Kennedy School building and it has been a major message of his presidency. The real problem with government, the real reason nothing seems to work out anymore, he said in that speech, has little to do with lack of leadership or anything so crass as ideology. To his mind,. the issue is simply “excellence in government.” The excellence is meant, of course, to be neutral excellence, and, indeed, the theme of Bok’s book reaches its apotheosis in the Kennedy School, which confidently believes that the world would be a better place if it were run by experts—generalized experts (as opposed to engineering or economics Ph.D.s), but experts all the same.

If you were expecting a little more skepticism and humility on this point after the experience of the last 20 years, you were expecting too much. The pitch now is that the most important reason the best and the brightest failed was not that they took the tools of quantifiable systems analysis (the intellectual descendant of which now makes up much of the Kennedy School curriculum) and used them to measure the Vietnam War’s progress through McNamara’s “body counts” and the like, not that they fell prey to what historians call the “arrogance of power,” not that braininess has its limitations. No, the reason Harvard faculty and alumni failed when they went to Washington in the 1960s, Bok wrote in his 1973-74 annual report outlining his dream fora new profession of public service, was that they were trained as lawyers, businessmen, and academics—not as public servants. Amateurs, he called them. In other words (and this is very clear from Bok’s writing), the problem was that they weren’t best-and-brightest enough.

Kennedy School Imprisonment

So the assumption is that there is a “right” way to run the government—not politically, but scientifically—and a sloppy way. The Kennedy School aims to teach the former, with an emphasis on rigorous, disciplined thinking. The special knowledge imparted is less about the substance of government—energy, foreign policy, fiscal policy—than about how to use specific analytical tools to solve problems. There are several programs at the Kennedy School, but all include a large measure of courses covering the application of statistics, econometrics, and microeconomics. Building mathematical models to analyze case studies is a favored technique. One professor summed up the aim of the public policy program as to turn out people who can approach public issues (either from inside the government or out) in a “neutrally competent” way.

If you were looking around for someone who embodies the Kennedy School, the man you might choose (though he didn’t actually go there) is Frank Carlucci. Well-spoken, good with numbers, nonpolitical—so what if he moved effortlessly from Jimmy Carter’s CIA to Caspar Weinberger’s Pentagon, acquiring along the way an entirely new view of the “threat” and how many hundreds of billions of dollars are needed to counter it? Crisp staff members who will do the boss’s bidding is what the Kennedy School believes the government needs more of right now. The implication is that what needs fixing is not so much the decisions themselves as their execution.

This means that despite the presence of something called the Institute of Politics (which caters almost exclusively to undergraduates), government and politics are often viewed in very separate terms at the school. According to several students with whom I spoke, election day last November was no more remarkable an occasion at the Kennedy School than it would be at, say, Harvard Medical School. Mayor Daley’s old maxim that good government is good politics is hardly the operative principle of the Kennedy School, or any public policy school for that matter. It’s difficult to imagine, for instance, Lyndon Johnson attending the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas. Bringing electrification to the Texas hill country didn’t have much to do with decision theory and regression analysis.

I don’t mean to condemn altogether the idea of quantitative analytical tools for understanding and evaluating government programs. Government is so Byzantine nowadays that grasping the complexities of budgets or distributional networks or regulatory policy is useful in performing middle- and upper-middle-level bureaucratic functions. The methods can help bureaucrats determine, say, the most efficient form of energy conservation for a small city, or how to assure that a factory meets air-quality standards. Most of all, as Bok wrote in 1973 in his blueprint for a new Kennedy School curriculum, the analytical tools can help government officials “avoid becoming captive to elaborate staff studies [they] can’t comprehend.”

You have to wonder, though, whether the Kennedy School is turning out the well-informed government official who knows how to escape being captured by engineers, economists, and other experts—or turning out the bamboozling government staff member himself. Does Derek Bok dare learn the answer? One student now at the school remembers several budget preparation exercises where not enough information was presented to the class to make an informed decision. Why couldn’t they get more complete figures, several students asked: The professor replied that in the “real world” this was all the information they might get. “The point of the exercise,” the student recalls, “was to teach you to fudge with numbers, to obfuscate the fact that you don’t really have any more expertise than anyone else.”

That kind of thinking isn’t just disconcerting, you’d have to say it represents a fundamental flaw in the whole Kennedy School approach. For public policy decisions to parade for even a moment as science is a frightening business, as readers of The Atlantic found out in William Greider’s story about David Stockman. Could there be a better example of number-crunching manipulation than the preposterous Reagan budget projections of 1981?

The point of the exercise, one Kennedy School student recalls, was “to teach you how to fudge with numbers.”

In a school where economists and political scientists hold sway, the inclination to quantify the unquantifiable becomes hard to resist. Consider a Kennedy School course on decision theory that recently studied that most scintillating and inspiring of all public issues, the Law of the Sea Conference. The issue of the case study was whether rights of navigable passage or rights to mine the sea beds were of greater interest to the U.S. when it went to the bargaining table. No matter that national security, international goodwill and other concerns are impossible to put a number value on—the assignment was to design an equation revealing which of the two options contained the most “utility points.”

The truth is that all uses of numbers contain assumptions, and in all realms of government, civil service or political, those assumptions are by definition normative, to use a favorite academic fuzzword. The “neutrally competent” lists of policy options made up by the, special assistant always reflect value judgments. So you should ignore, for instance, what conservatives at the Kennedy School and elsewhere try to claim about dispassionate analysis of federal regulation. When the Reagan administration set about scientifically applying cost-benefit analysis in 1981 it was hardly a coincidence that the computers found almost no benefits.

Bok’s Bay of Pigs

Fortunately, the Kennedy School tries to teach people to understand some of this. Much of its curriculum, in fact much of public policy education elsewhere, grows out of a I971 book by Graham Allison called Essence of Decision. Allison, now dean of the Kennedy School, used the Cuban missile crisis as a case study to show that decisions are not made by “rational actors” squaring off over a chessboard, but by human beings buffeted by complex bureaucratic and political forces.

That view might not seem so earthshaking a revelation now, but it was to public policy educators of the early seventies. Allison was immortalized because he made the human point while using the comfortable model-building methodology social scientists are accustomed to. What’s curious about his book is that this focus on human behavior -and more particularly, on the personal, nonprofessional nature of the missile crisis—is at odds not only with Allison’s clunky theorizing, but with the scientific, professional style of public policy education that his work helped spawn.

In spelling out the details of the missile crisis, Allison brought to light a remarkable fact overlooked during most of the sixties. Instead of the unremitting tough guy of lore, Jack Kennedy was in fact a conciliatory negotiator (a truth that might have spared us Vietnam policy makers who later emulated what they thought was his machismo example). He sent his brother Bobby to a secret meeting with Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin in an effort to allow Khrushchev to save at least a little face—a move that showed the Kennedys understood something important about human motivations. Allison also points out a better-known fact: the president sought to cut through the professionalized chain of command by creating an ad hoc “Executive Committee” to confront the crisis. The normal rules of government decision making (the kind you might learn, say, in school) suddenly didn’t apply. What’s more, throughout the deliberations, Bobby played a most un-normal role in government— that of skeptic. He asked simple questions that cut through the Pentagon’s elaborate technical rationalizations for an air strike against Cuba.

Remember, Bobby Kennedy, then attorney general, was a non-expert skeptic—he didn’t have any of Derek Bok’s “specialized knowledge.” He hadn’t learned the coefficients of global conflict. Because it was 1962, computerized game theory wasn’t available, and, anyway, it would have been a little hard to program Khrushchev’s temperament. Allison’s equation for describing that very crisis (“the best explanation of an organization’s behavior at T is T plus 1”) wouldn’t have helped him understand the Pentagon. Bobby would have laughed.

The reason the Kennedy brothers didn’t care about the skills the Kennedy School would in later years supply was that in 1961, in a similar crisis that didn’t involve Bobby Kennedy, the specialized knowledge and model building of Allen Dulles’s Ivy League planners at the CIA brought on a very unpleasant result. During that operation nobody asked the tough questions about the assumption behind the invasion projections, nobody challenged the chain of command, and that meant nobody knew to say no when a small band of exiles set out that spring for the Bay of Pigs.

The Human Factor

So the people who run the Kennedy School are in a contorted position. They know abstractly that the government is run by humans who respond to political and bureaucratic stimuli that defy science. But because most of the professors’ academic orientation is quantitative, and because the ideal of neutral competence is easier to understand in economic than in cultural terms, they downplay the humanistic areas. When I was at Harvard College I took a very good class at the Kennedy School called The Uses of History. But like other “soft” courses (on the relationship between government and the press, for instance), it is considered by students to be icing on the cake. The softer classes are often scheduled only as three-week sessions between semesters, and when the qualitative issues do get discussed, it is usually in terms rigorous (read stiffly academic) enough to squeeze out most of the intangibles.

This is too bad, because the only way the numbers and models will ever make any real sense is if policy makers fully understand the human forces that distort them. Understanding how people think and feel strikes the economists (and even the political scientists) as flaccid, but it’s at least as important in government as anything they conjure up.

In recent years there have been a lot of good books about the human dimension of government. Start with David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest, which you could safely bet most Kennedy School students haven’t read, Add Greider on Stockman. For how the chain of command and other bureaucratic forces prevented the truth about Vietnam from getting out, there’s Chester Cooper’s The Lost Crusade, the Peers Report on My Lai, Frank Snepp’s Decent Interval (about the CIA), and an especially insightful article in the April 1968 Atlantic by James C. Thomson, Jr. The sycophantic culture of the White House is best captured in John Dean’s Blind Ambition; the peculiarities of the judiciary (and state legislature) in Richard Neely’s How Courts Govern America. (Franz Kafka’s The Trial is an important reminder that the bureaucracy that benefits you probably hurts someone else.) For a perspective on local government, Ken Auletta’s The Streets Were Paved with Gold explains how liberal assumptions brought New York to the brink of financial ruin, and T. Harry Williams’s Huey Long shows how the force of one man’s personality can shape a regional culture. Robert Caro’s works on Robert Moses (The Power Broker) and Lyndon Johnson (The Path to Power) are two impressive guidebooks to actually getting things done—good and bad— through government.

It’s hard to over stress how important the human understanding revealed in these and other books can be to making government work better. Caring about the anthropological dimension— the “soft” stuff—translates into a commitment for change much more quickly than does caring in your heart of hearts about the models. Real commitment usually implies real curiosity about whether one’s vision is being carried out, and curiosity in turn requires that you step away from the computer terminal long enough to get out into the other offices and neighborhoods and talk to people, not to mention read books by people who have done so.

One reason the Kennedy School has been inept at teaching students to go out and use their powers of observation to discover how programs really work is that the public policy literature on this subject is so limited. The real-life examples that could allow government managers to grasp that essential human understanding just aren’t there in most of the reading assigned. In a good book with the unfortunate title of Administrative Feedback, Herbert Kaufman writes under a chapter entitled “Paucity of Data”: “Aside from these scattered, diverse materials, we could find nothing analyzing or even describing actual experience with administrative feedback in live organizations.”

In the hands of Derek Bok’s Harvard, the democratic promise and the meritocratic promise become one and the same.

Notice how Kaufman places the art of description (“even describing”) in a category subordinate to analysis. If the great failing of American journalists is that they need to match their talent for description with better analysis, the great failing of political scientists is that they fail to match technical analysis with lively description— in other words, empathy with character and culture. This gaping hole in our understanding of government at the delivery end is beginning to be filled—Ken Auletta’s examination of a job-training program in The Underclass is a current example—but it is being filled largely by journalists, historians, and novelists, not public policy experts.

Bowled Over by Pros

If books from these disciplines sound like they could just as easily be read in high school or college, you’re right. Despite what Derek Bok says, much that is valuable for understanding and working in government is not a professional mystery at all. The reason so many students view Kennedy School courses covering “soft” areas as useless is that they have been conditioned to think of the skills they take home with their diploma as something special. If it were revealed that much of what they really need is in fact accessible to anyone, they wouldn’t enroll and the professional school wouldn’t exist. This urge to be special is the propped-up foundation on which American professional education has always rested.

In his inimitably elitist way, Bok understands that point. He writes in Beyond the Ivory Tower that research universities should not be involved in “schools of hotel management… radio and TV communications…home economics…textiles and clothing…and other doubtful enterprises too numerous to mention.” The reason he considers them doubtful, unless he truly hates middle, class people, is that competence in these fields can quite easily be obtained without an advanced degree. Building a science around hotel management and then making it difficult to get a job in that field unless you have mastered that science is in no one’s interest except the credentialed hoteliers. Barriers of entry to a profession hurt everyone except those inside the barriers.

But despite lawyers who won’t let people resolve their own problems, doctors who boycott nurse midwives, and career bureaucrats who are sure they know more about regulating small business than a small businessman ever could, Bok doesn’t believe his view of hotel management could possibly be relevant to what he calls the “great” professions. He’s wrong. With the idea of public policy education having spread to more than 200 campuses, the normal logic of professional growth will soon apply. School-taught skills will eventually be assigned more weight than experience or other qualifications (like first-hand familiarity with the area of concern). Some day the public sector could be so professionalized that it will lose touch altogether with the people it is supposed to represent. Public policy degrees could complete the traditional professional transformation from something that may help you do a good job into something that is a requirement for getting the job in the first place.

Any movement in that direction (and there’s already been some) must be viewed as frighteningly anti-democratic. It’s bad enough to be doctored and lawyered by a priesthood; to be ruled by one would mean the end of a very old and very central strain of American democracy.

For 200 years, representative government has drawn its strength from diversity, and from the idea that the shape of the nation lies in the hands of all citizens, not just those of proper pedigree— hereditary, academic, or otherwise.

Mistaken Identity

Not surprisingly, the priesthood that has long been a source of legitimate resentment on the part of the rest of the country is a source of pride at Harvard. In the 1982-83 Kennedy School bulletin, Elliot Richardson engages in the usual alumni puffery (“Harvard is as old as antiquity and as new as tomorrow’s Nobel Prize-winning discovery”), but he also waxes off onto an entirely different plane: “What Harvard stands for is more important to me than what it is or what it has done. Harvard for me is John Winthrop’s city upon a hill; the eyes of all people are upon it.”

In that one bit of chauvinistic fluff, Richardson put his finger right on the justification not only for the Kennedy School, but for the whole honeycombed system of meritocratic professionalism that Harvard symbolizes. The real city on a hill John Winthrop saw when he sailed into Massachusetts Bay, the real New Jerusalem, was, of course, America itself. But here in the hands of Harvard the democratic promise of the New World and the meritocratic promise of professionalism become one and the same. Harvard doesn’t hate America, it mistakes itself for it. Thus Derek Bok could propose last year that colleges should make financial aid decisions solely on the basis of SAT scores—how else should it be? The credentials say it all. In the America of his dreams, anyone can grow up to be president, but he’ll be a better president if Harvard screens him first.

Luckily, the real greatness of the American democratic system always seems to poke its head through at appropriate moments. When the idea of dropping the name Kennedy from the school was raised in 1981, all of the models and specialized knowledge in the world could not have told Graham Allison and the other administrators just how unpopular the idea would be. The only way they could have known was to venture far enough beyond the ivory tower to learn of the bond that connected the people of Cambridge, Massachusetts, to John F. Kennedy—and to apply some human, political judgments all citizens should know how to make. But of course they didn’t have to go to Harvard to learn that.

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Jonathan Alter, a contributing editor of the Washington Monthly, is a former senior editor and columnist at Newsweek, a filmmaker, journalist, political analyst, and the publisher of the Substack Old Goats with Jonathan Alter. His most recent book is His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, a Life.