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31- Continuing Your Classical Liberal Education

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31. Continuing Your Classical Liberal Education

Dr. Stephen Davies, Program Director, Institute of Economic Affairs


So, you have gotten that position you’ve been working toward. You are now safely ensconced in a think tank, policy analysis firm or public policy research organization. Surely now school is behind you and you can do what most graduates do when they finally complete and get a post : put their books to one side and draw a line under their education? Not at all. This would be a mistake in a number of ways, as well as being bad in itself. You should now be thinking of how to continue your education in classical liberal ideas and arguments and look upon it as a long-term project that you carry on alongside your regular job. Fortunately, it has never been easier to do this, and it’s a lot of fun, as well as helps you in your new career in policy.


Why though should you do this? Obviously, one basic reason is that learning and knowledge are good in and of themselves. However, there are lots of practical reasons why you should not stop your education once you graduate. In the first place, there is still so much to learn, much of it directly relevant to the work you are now doing. In the whole of your time as an undergraduate and at graduate school, you will have only touched on part of the rich and varied continent of classical liberal ideas. Suppose you have specialized in economics. There will still be many aspects of economic thinking that you hardly know even after that. There will be even more opportunity to learn new things in other areas, such as political science, international relations, philosophy, and history. All of this is a source of arguments, information, and explanatory analysis that you can bring to bear in your career in public policy. Why let it lie fallow and unexplored?


Moreover, the sum of classical liberal knowledge and argument (or indeed intellectual and scholarly argument in general) is not fixed and unchanging. Scholars are constantly producing new theses and undermining old ones, discovering new things and looking at established and known facts in a new way. You need to keep up with these developments, both because they are interesting in themselves and because they will often have a direct bearing on the kind of more practical policy-oriented research that you are now doing. If you are looking at criminal justice policy for ex ample, new findings in sociology or psychology will have direct relevance for you; they may lead you to rethink your line of argument or the kind of policy recommendations that you make.


In addition to these practical benefits of continuing your education, there are more fundamental reasons for doing this and making it a life project. These have to do with the kind of person that you want to be or become. If you stop learning and exploring the ideas you believe in and are committed to, you will eventually forget why you got into this business in the first place. You will become concerned only with the process of politics and public policy and lose sight of the goal, the ideal you had that shaped your choices and that you went into the policy world to help realize or defend. You will become a technician and stop being an idealist. One result is that your mental horizons will shrink, you will lose the vision you once had, which helped you to think in original ways. Increasingly, you won’t ask fundamental questions. Instead, you will only look at the practical mechanics of policy and lose sight of the deeper questions.


You will also lose an important part of what makes you a more rounded person in general. This is a major problem in contemporary politics and the associated world of policy research and analysis. 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 and 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.



Steven Davies is program officer at the Institute for Humane Stu dies in Arlington, Va. He joined IHS from the U.K., where from 1979 onward he taught in the department of history and economic history at Manchester Metropolitan University. He worked at IHS before, in 1991 and in 1992-93, as well as teaching at many summer seminars and events over the years. He has also been a visiting scholar at the Social Philosophy and Policy Center at Bowling Green, Ohio. In September, he will be taking the position of academic director at the Institute of Economic Affairs in London. A historian, he graduated from St. Andrews University in Scotland in 1976 and gained his Ph.D. from the same institution in 1984. He was co-editor with Nigel Ashford of The Dictionary of Conservative and Libertarian Thought and wrote several entries, including the general introduction, for The Encyclopedia of Libertarianism, edited by Ronald Hamowy. He is also the author of Empiricism and History and of several articles and essays on topics including the private provision of public goods (including two in the collection The Voluntary City, edited by Beito, Gordon, and Tabarrok) and the history of crime and criminal justice. He has recently completed a book on the history of the world since 1250 and the origins of modernity. Among his other interests are science fiction and the fortunes of Manchester City.


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