This post is a continuation of Dr. Davies’ remarks on Continuing Your Classical Liberal Education.
The British politician Dennis Healy argued that all politicians needed what he called a hinterland. That is a set of interests and avocations that are independent of their political career or at least not directly connected to it. He himself had a great interest in both music and literature. This gives the politician or analyst the vital quality of perspective and makes him or her a more three- dimensional person rather than a flat two-dimensional figure who knows and cares only about one narrow thing.
Washington, D.C., and state capitals are full of people who know all about the details of the latest hot policy topic or the bills going through the legislature, but have lost or never developed their hinterland. They no longer have a framework they can fit all this technical information into, a larger picture that gives it meaning. They have forgotten most of what they learned at school and haven’t learned anything new. They may look sleek in their sharp suits, but intellectually they are flabby. They can’t bring new thinking and insights to bear; they are responsive rather than creative. Eventually, the tide of ideas sweeping past them outside their bubble will sweep them away and leave them stranded. At some point, they will realize this and wonder why they are doing this and what happened to that intellectual curiosity and idealism they felt when they started out. Don’t be like that!
So all this is well and good, but what should you do? The good news is that continuing your education and keeping up with scholarship has never been easier. At one time you would have had to go back to school or take part-time or evening classes if you wanted to do this. Now though, there has been a revolution in the world of ideas, and it is easier than at any time since the 1880s to be an intellectual, a student, or even a scholar without being in full- or even part-time education. The basic point is to make your education a part of your life and a continuing project. The main thing therefore is to make time for it. There are a number of things you can do. The basic thing is to do this in a structured way. Give yourself a manageable intellectual project on a subject that interests you, the equivalent in terms of time commitment of a full-credit class. So you might decide to learn about the intellectual and political history of the Progressive Era, or the philosophy of crime and punishment, or the economics of an area you haven’t really studied before.
The most obvious thing to do is to read regularly and systematically. Compile a list of books on a topic or subject area that you want to look at and go through it. One way of doing this is to look at the lists produced by institutions such as IHS or Liberty Fund (whose own publications list is a great resource—even better are their online resources at www.econlib.org and http://oll.libertyfund.org). Don’t just read books that are clearly policy-relevant, read pure academic ones. Also, start to explore ones in areas you didn’t study in college. One good resource is the Amazon list of related books for any particular one you’re reading. It isn’t just books either; if you’re lucky, your school will give you access to things such as JSTOR so you will be able to keep up with journals as well. As well as reading books, take out subscriptions to magazines. Not the obvious polemical ones but the more scholarly ones that are not purely academic but halfway between the academic and the popular. Think of titles like Independent Review, Foreign Policy, National Interest, American Interest, Reason, and Dissent.
As well as reading regularly, look out for public lectures in your area given by universities and other organizations, such as the National Endowment for the Humanities. Accept invitations to events put on by nonprofits and other think tanks that have an intellectual element, even (or especially) when they are in an area that isn’t directly to do with the one you’re an expert in for policy.
There are now a wealth of other ways to educate yourself. You can subscribe to and get regular updates from many sites. Among the thousands of blogs are some that are seriously scholarly and either tell you a lot, or even better, direct you to other resources. Many older books are now available online at Project Gutenberg and other sites. There are also excellent courses on CD or DVD on a wide range of subjects, put out by The Teaching Company and other firms, usually of a very high quality and sometimes with a distinct classical liberal twist or interpretation.
Don’t feel that this continued education need be a solitary exercise. You can join or help set up reading and discussion groups either online or preferably where you meet for lunch or a social event as well as to discuss what you’ve read or seen. Also, it is very important to not only read what is ideologically congenial to you (hence the reference to Dissent earlier). You don’t want to suffer from confirmation bias. Rather, you want to be exposed to the best arguments the other side has to offer, as this will sharpen your own thinking and keep you on your toes. Just as the best teams want to match themselves against the strongest opposition, so you should want to engage and debate with the strongest critiques of your own beliefs so that your own arguments are as strong and well-informed as possible. (Of course, you may actually learn something or even change your mind on something, which is not a bad thing if that’s where the evidence and argument leads.)
Getting that policy position is not the conclusion of your academic career. Far from it—for all sorts of reasons, you should look to continue it, and if you do, you will gain a lot for yourself and also be more effective in the fight you are committed to for things you believe in
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