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By Jeremy Shearmur with editorial input from David Schmidtz
Imagine that you were part of a conversation on some topic of interest to you. What would your reaction be if someone barged into the room, stood in the corner, and started to shout his opinions on the topic in question without regard to what you and the others had been saying, the terms in which you had framed the questions, the ideas that you had been using to discuss them, or the current state of the argument? The intruder would, at best, come across as boorish and impudent. Even if he had something valuable to say, you would probably have no appreciation of it if it were expressed in terms that were uncivil, arrogant, or almost incoherent. This manner of discourse, combined with the discourtesy of address, would have the likely consequence that you and the others would simply ignore him and his ideas. Unfortunately, there is a risk that classical liberals will behave this way, just because they think they have something important to say which is being ignored.
What, then, is to be done? You need to try to understand where other people are coming from, to recognize what turns them off, and to learn to join the discourse in ways that others can relate to and respect so they will consider your ideas seriously. One has to engage in the conversation with them before one can make persuasive arguments. Indeed, to a large extent, developing these abilities is what you will be concerned with in graduate school.
But, you might wonder, “Does this mean selling out?” Not at all. Rather, you face an important and interesting challenge – to develop your ideas in ways that will be respected by your colleagues and appreciated by the people with whom you interact. This does not mean “going native” – assuming other people’s concerns and priorities. Rather, it means that you face the interesting intellectual task of developing your concerns in ways that will also count as achievements in disciplines which will, typically, be in the hands of people with whom you are in disagreement. You have to lead them to conclusions which they may not find attractive, and which they may in every way resist. But you can make the argument compelling if you conduct it in their terms. You want their attention, which means you pretty much have to engage them on their own ground.
I should stress that we genuinely have much to learn. We, too, will evolve in this process and discover that ideas which once seemed powerful do not, in fact, hold water. We will discover new problems which we must address and difficulties which we had never even realized were present. We are involved in a discovery process through which we can expect to be transformed by our successive interactions with other people. Just like a businessman, we must be ready constantly to change, improve, and update our ideas. Think about it. If you don’t have better ideas ten years from now than you have today, what was the point?
Another point which seems to me equally important: we should resist the impulse to take on all comers. For the classical liberal, life in the university can be frustrating just because classical liberals typically find themselves isolated and surrounded by people who do not share their views. You may get frustrated when ideas which are dear to you are misrepresented. You may think your colleagues’ views are silly, pernicious, or obviously incorrect, but hold back the impulse to tell them or to let your feelings show. Don’t volunteer your views unless you are asked. Eventually, they will ask, and when they do, that’s the time when they will be most likely to see the merit in your perspective. Really, honesty doesn’t require you to reveal every negative thought that crosses your mind. You can pick your battles.
A word about stereotypes. If you label yourself a classical liberal, you invoke a whole set of stereotypes. You have various reasons for doing so, probably none of them good. You are basically insisting that your listeners not take you seriously. If you insist on typecasting yourself as a mouthpiece for an “ism,” then even people who share your ideology will take you less seriously, and rightly so. Speak for yourself. Figure it out for yourself. Don’t hide behind an “ism.”
In practical terms, what does all this mean? First, it means working hard. You will find the pace is much tougher in graduate school than it was when you were an undergraduate. Pitch into the work right away, and master the technical skills you will need. Be pleasant to those who teach you, and make sure that you do your work competently. While you are doing this, ask around in your department about the reputation of different professors. What are they like as scholars? What are they like as dissertation advisors? What are they like to have on a committee? Do they respect their students and treat them decently? Are they effective in getting them jobs after graduation?
While you are cultivating a broader network of support, don’t forget your friends. Establish and maintain contact with other people who are working in the same field as you are and who share an interest in classical liberalism. IHS will be happy to offer support and put you in touch with like-minded individuals. Take opportunities to compare notes with other classical liberals. They can reinforce your interest, not only in classical liberal approaches within your own discipline, but also in the wider issues you care about.
This support group is vital because, if you follow my earlier suggestions to blend into the department but don’t at the same time sustain yourself emotionally by staying in touch with those who share your commitments, there is a real danger that you will “go native” and become a regular, mainstream thinker, even though this is not what you wish to become. In this situation, you may rationalize, “I still care about liberty; in my heart I am still a classical liberal.” But if it makes no detectable difference to your work, you are deceiving yourself.
Your challenge is to steer the difficult pathway between espousing classical liberal ideas so abrasively that no one in the academic world wishes to listen to you, and “going native” to the point where you no longer have an identity of your own. It can be a lonely trip, but don’t forget that people at IHS know scholars who have made the journey before you.
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