Ever since economists failed to predict the Great Recession of late 2007 to 2009, a growing number scholars in the field have added a greater historical and philosophical sense to their empirical research. It is no surprise that these economists are mostly of the Austrian school or influenced by it, since that school’s founders—Carl Menger, Ludwig von Mises, and F.A. Hayek—viewed economic data with suspicion. Their heirs in America include Russ Roberts, Michael Munger, Deirdre McCloskey, and Tyler Cowen.
Peter Lawler’s passing has been quite painful to me as it has to so very many people who were his students, friends, and colleagues. His death means that a source of incomparable wisdom in my life is gone. One story that sticks in my mind is the time that Peter secured a rather sizable grant from a certain foundation. He had to participate in a contest of sorts for the grant. His other competitors had put together PowerPoint presentations, binders, flow charts, deploying MBA-speak to demonstrate the vital impact the money would have if they could make use of it. Peter, who never hesitated to mock MBA-speak in deadpan tones, thought the episode illustrated technocratic practices at their best, applying corporate business techniques in the realm of non-profit outreach. Peter told me that he wrote down a few lines on a scratch paper while waiting his turn to speak to the grant-making committee. He delivered his “innovative” talk in a few minutes. He focused on—what else?—virtue and human nature. Needless to say, he was chosen to receive the funding.
Since seeing the movie Julie and Julia the other year, I do a double-take whenever I see an old photograph of Julia Child on a cookbook: Is that the actual chef, I wonder, or Meryl Streep, who played her so realistically? So I found myself doing a double-take when I saw the photograph today of my too-soon departed friend Peter Lawler, for his image looked so like the famous picture of Walker Percy, the novelist and essayist he most admired. Both were Southern and Catholic and, to borrow the title of one of Percy’s novels, both adopted the conceit of the “Last Gentleman,” an ideal whose lasting charm insures it will never quite be true.
On National Review Online’s “Corner”, Stanley Kurtz, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, discussed the nature and origins of recent campus disinvitations and disruptions, such as the Black Lives Matter intimidation of Heather Mac Donald at University of California Los Angeles. The essay has two parts. The first provides a narrative history of how American campuses embraced anti-free speech disruptions, and the second half offers policies to end them. Kurtz’s piece offered the now familiar complaint that tenured radicals are at the root of campus disruption, and Republican majorities in Congress should reform the Higher Education Act to force universities to protect speech and, if possible, rescind tenure. Professor Peter Augustine Lawler, the Dana Professor of Political Science at Berry College, critiqued Kurtz’s piece on two grounds. This first is that administrators are now in charge and have pushed faculty to the margins of decision-making. The second is that legislation is precisely the opposite of the proper solution, because federal regulation of various kinds has facilitated the erosion of the true diversity of American colleges.
I am more sympathetic than Peter Lawler to the movement for reforming higher education, even though I share his delight in Greek and the philosophy of the ancients. I majored in classics, and spent part of my graduate studies at Oxford on the Patristics. I even still occasionally blog about Homer! But I believe that American higher education needs generally to become more variegated to take account of the varied endowments and needs of students. And higher education funded by the state should be a public good providing benefits to society as well as to its students.
I do not doubt that learning Greek and ancient philosophy is a valuable experience for most of the students who undertake it. I am doubtful, however, that a great many others would benefit from this challenge, because of the substantial opportunity cost in learning a difficult language like Greek: passing up other bodies of knowledge that have more direct payoffs in more vocations and provide better tools for understanding many aspects of the modern world. To be sure, some future writers or thinkers may gain. Others who are quick studies can choose many vocations and methods of modern analysis without any particular preparation beyond their genius. But that does not describe most students, even those that would substantially benefit from a college education. I myself occasionally rue my single-minded pursuit of the typical nineteenth century education at the expense of courses with the economics and statistics needed to evaluate complex tradeoffs in public policy.
Similarly, many students will benefit from an old fashioned structure of education, even the kind of tutorial system that I enjoyed at Oxford. But the more labor intensive is education, the more expensive it is.
I am grateful for to Peter Lawler for his interesting comment on my post. I agree with much of it. My focus in The State of Our Liberty—an implicit response to the State of the Union– was on the effects our government is having on liberty, which I think are generally not happy. Lawler believes, and I do as well, that technological developments may nevertheless help foster liberty.
Indeed, I am even somewhat more optimistic than Lawler in this regard, because I do not believe technology poses as much risk to equality as he appears to think. As I have written on this blog, technological innovation helps equality in important respects, because innovations create a pool of cheap and free goods that everyone soon enjoys. Middle class people and the very rich have more equal lives today than did the middle class and very rich in previous times, because both spend an increasing amount of time on the internet and their experience there is not dissimilar. And innovations like smart phones go down the income scale much more rapidly than do previous innovations like refrigerators.
Moreover, the social media of today equips a much broader group of people to spend a large part of their lives writing and otherwise expressing themselves through blogs and even Facebook postings. As Clive Thompson has written in his excellent book, Smarter than You Think, the personal creativity enabled by social media dwarfs that of the letter writing of old. Thus, I do not agree that even a robotic future will relegate people to lives of passive entertainment, which appears to be the view Peter Lawler ascribes to Tyler Cowen. They will be able to follow their passions in ways that are inexpensive and largely free.
A seemingly esoteric academic debate bursts forth in the Book Review of the Sunday New York Times that ought to turn us to the most significant political books of our times. The war between the West and East Coast Straussians, academics (and political players such as Bill Kristol) who have been influenced by the political philosopher Leo Strauss, involves no mere battle of the books but bears political consequences as well. His books and their interpretation and application are required reading for their wisdom about free and civilized societies. Strauss’s work encompasses grand themes of the West, including ancients and moderns, reason and revelation, natural right and history, and philosophy and poetry (in its root sense of creation). But in all this was saving the West Strauss’s intention? Was he instead a Machiavellian? A Nietzschean?[i]