I find myself largely in agreement with Joanna Robinson’s criticisms of higher education, which may be surprising for someone who works as a full-time mentor of graduate students in philosophy and political theory. Graduate studies are often an expensive mistake. I discourage undergraduates from going to law school for the reasons Ms. Robinson cites, unless they have a realistic shot at legal academia or seek to practice public interest law. Business, journalism, and film schools are largely a waste of time and money too: there is no point going into debt to learn skills one can acquire through apprenticeships or simply doing it oneself and learning from trial and error. But what if one wants to be a scholar in the academy? What if one wants to be a scholar whose work in some way helps change the world for the better?
Where I may depart from Ms. Robinson (in fairness she doesn’t really discuss this) is on the value of a graduate degree in the humanities, with two important caveats. First, one must have the aptitude and passion to be a poor graduate student for several years, grinding it out with a good chance but no guarantee of long-term academic employment down the road. Second, one should be poor but not in debt for the humanities. Most U.S. PhD programs worth their salt offer livable stipends and tuition waivers to the graduate students they see as most capable of succeeding in academia. I advise my students not to enter a program that doesn’t fund them.
A larger presence of liberty-friendly scholars in the academy offers for now the only hope for bringing about a freer society. Our goal at the Institute for Humane Studies is to change our culture to one more amenable to freedom’s place in solving social problems, as envisioned by our founder, Dr. Baldy Harper. This mission echoes F.A. Hayek’s ideas on social change. We see the humanities – particularly economics, philosophy, political science, and history – as shaping the course of dialogue carried out by the “secondhand dealers in ideas” such as journalists, authors, teachers, and clergy. The issues and arguments on which these dealers focus then set the parameters – the “Overton windows” – of public opinion.
I am not merely engaging in speculative sociology. Political philosophers like the late John Rawls and economists like the Keynesian Paul Krugman wield enormous influence in shaping public opinion on matters that affect policy and our individual freedoms. Academics are not idle wheels of culture: they are its fountainhead. And bad ideas kill.
Part of IHS’s role is to support the careers of classical liberal and libertarian scholars who can challenge ideas inimical to liberty and, more positively, set the terms of academic debate with concerted scholarly work defending the multiple arguments for how freedom and prosperity can be – and ought to be – open to all. But one cannot typically gain and signal one’s academic bona fides without training in a respected graduate program. Maybe one day grad school won’t be necessary for this, but we’re not there yet.
Ms. Robinson commendably found an entrepreneurial outlet for her talents in the private sector, and her success is measured in monetary profits. The profits of successful pro-liberty scholarship are less tangible but no less real. Indeed, the sometimes glacial pace of academic progress underscores the need for scholars in the humanities to fight the good fight unrelentingly, so we can sustain and improve the social conditions which allow for things like specialization in freely chosen careers. Fifty years ago libertarian views were hardly to be found among a cadre of ivory tower social planners. Today libertarian views are still in the minority but academics have to take the best of them seriously. This is the kind of progress we hope to continue by encouraging our most able and enthusiastic students to go the academic route.
Dr. Bill Glod is Program Officer of Philosophy at the Institute for Humane Studies. This post is in response to another by Joanna Robinson.
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