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Malcolm Gladwell On The Role of Academics

An excerpt from an Interview with Malcolm Gladwell:

It’s an interesting question. I have been reading a lot about the Vietnam War. What’s amazing [about it] is that a set of lessons were painfully learned there, which were completely ignored 30 years later in the Iraq War and Afghanistan. It’s like Vietnam never happened. One of academics’ roles in society is that they are our memory. It is their job to go back, look at what happened, make sense of it and extract principles that allow us to learn. The rest of us don’t have either the skill or the time to do that.

What was striking about Afghanistan and Iraq and those initial decisions to go to war is there was no memory. There was no memory anywhere to be found. It was as if the world had started over. It is moments like that when I dearly wish that there had been some way for the academic world and the public policy world to be more squarely in conversation, even if it’s as simple as saying, “I don’t think you should ever have any kind of debate about military action in Congress without bringing in the historians and the political scientists to have them remind you about what war is.” Or you can’t have a debate about the economy, about how to get out of a recession, without having someone come in and tell you about the Depression and remind you what happened.

That is a very, very simple example, but I just wish there was some way that there was more of an appreciation of how much extraordinary wisdom there is. This country has built the greatest set of universities the world’s ever seen, and yet, we have discussions where we just pretend those institutions don’t exist.

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Malcolm Gladwell is a staff writer at the New Yorker and the author of The Tipping Point: How Little Things Make a Big Difference, Blink, Outliers and most recently, What the Dog Saw.