Learning from History

By Mary K. Zajac


Steven Teles

Photo: Will Kirk/Homewoodphoto.jhu.edu

By his own admission, Steven Teles, a political science professor, is “the kind of person who goes into any situation and immediately imagines everything that can go wrong.” A disadvantage in some contexts, perhaps, but a clear advantage when you teach a class called Policy Errors, Mistakes and Disasters: Learning from Failure, which examines a host of situations where policy outcomes were less than optimal.

Teles first conceived of the course when he taught graduate students at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy in 2007. Because many of the students were already building careers, Teles wanted his course to have real-life application. “I asked myself, ‘What are the skills political scientists have that are related to policy?’” he says. “And I thought one of them is learning from history.”

The class was also prompted by a particular bit of history: Teles’ rethinking of the Iraq War, which he had initially supported. “I was sort of haunted by what had happened, and asked myself how I missed a lot of signals that should have been so clear that this was not going to go well,” he explains. The resulting course offered Teles and his students a way to revisit the war and other conflicts in order to dig deep into policy missteps and learn from those mistakes.

In its current incarnation, Policy Errors, an elective in the Krieger School’s new minor in social policy, also includes weekly analyses of the U.S. financial crisis, Hurricane Katrina, the Fukushima nuclear disaster, and the U.S. Challenger shuttle launch. The semester ends with an analysis of the Affordable Care Act rollout. Teles acknowledges the challenge of covering this amount of material in one semester. “Part of this is about teaching students to quickly shift gears, to absorb a whole new fact pattern and situation,” he says. “The trick is to figure out what you can pull from the particular situation that you can then make relevant to something else. And I think that usually becomes clearer when you start seeing multiple different examples of policy failure.”

On a Thursday afternoon, in a classroom in Gilman Hall, 16 students take notes as Teles leads them in a discussion of the week’s reading. Teles is an animated teacher, pacing back and forth across the front of the room, gesturing with large hands as if conducting an orchestra, pausing to check his notes or question students. “When you want to see how policy works, you need to break it apart,” he announces before listing the four parts of policy—goal, strategy, tactics, and implementation—on the board.

During the first half of class, Teles engages the students throughout his lecture. “Why is ‘eventual’ success of a policy not a factor?” he asks.

“Because it needs immediacy,” answers Stephanie King ’14, a double major in political science and biology. “It needs to work right away or people think it won’t work at all.”

To Teles’ request for an example of a policy where everything has to succeed simultaneously, international studies major Fabrice Garnier ’14 offers “natural disaster relief,” while Andrew Guernsey ’16, a double major in political science and classics, cites Iraq and modern military maneuvers as examples. By the class break, the board is covered with Teles’ chalk scrawl of stats, graphs, charts, and lists.

Students admit that the class is challenging because of the diversity of situations and policies being covered in a short period of time. But this can be a benefit, too, argues senior Katherine Robinson, a double major in international studies and sociology, because “looking at smaller mechanisms and details and using them to compare different policy disasters is a lot more specific than the big picture, theoretical approaches used in most classes.”

There is also the appeal of the class’s real world applications, including the executive summaries—five short papers summarizing the basic facts of one of the readings written to an imaginary boss who is a member of Congress or an assistant secretary of a federal agency—and the occasional presence of author and journalist Megan McArdle, who sits in whenever her schedule allows and blogs about the class for bloombergview.com.

“I have never been in a class where the desired outcome is so clearly practical: Our professor wants us to figure out what went wrong in the past so that we can avoid those mistakes in the future,” explains Nikhil Gupta ’15, a double major in international studies and economics. “While you’re working in this class, you feel like you’re actually creating and contributing something.”