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This collection offers some frank but friendly advice to those of you interested in classical liberalism and considering an academic career. The life of the scholar is a voyage filled with deep and enduring satisfactions, but it is a voyage that requires some skillful navigation and patience. The writers who have compiled these sections want to share their experiences. In part, we just want you to know what you are getting into. But mostly, we want to make sure you will realize your ambitions in the academy.
Many of us who pursue scholarly careers do so because we love ideas. For such a person, there is satisfaction to be attained in academia that can be achieved almost nowhere else. For a scholar, there is excitement in waking up in the morning and thinking, “What am I going to think about today?” and then spending the rest of the day actually thinking about those ideas. Studying in a large library, reading new material on the Internet, or discovering new ideas; that is how academics spend their time. When you want to discuss an idea you care deeply about, you can find others who care just as deeply, right in the next office or just across the quad. You can further hone and test your ideas when you teach, presenting students new or classical material from your field in a way both you and the students find stimulating. What could possibly be better, for those of us who care about ideas and want to discuss how things work?
Most classical liberals believe that their work and ideas make the world better. Though many people today do not enjoy the freedom classical liberals consider to be so important, this could change through the development, acceptance, and growth of classical liberal ideas. There is social value in taking classical liberalism seriously – treating one another as valuable, responsible, and rational agents rather than objects to be manipulated. Think of the vast potential of people, their knowledge, and of the skills they might develop, if only they were free to do so. Consider how everyone else might also benefit as a result of freeing that potential!
Yet, many of the ideas that attracted us to classical liberalism may not work in the abstract and idealized forms that first drew us in. There is a growing body of interesting and well-informed criticism of classical liberal ideas in just about every field. These arguments represent formidable challenges upon which classical liberals need to work.
This task demands rigorous and stimulating scholarship which, in our view, is very exciting. The scholar looks forward to challenges and achievements, working on issues that concern her personally and which have both intellectual and practical importance. Classical liberalism may be viewed as what Karl Popper called a “research program,” a framework within which we work to solve problems. The pursuit of classical liberal ideas in an academic environment is an overwhelmingly attractive journey for those who embark upon it. However, there are many challenges, and some do not finish the voyage.
This brings us back to where we began: the obstacles which have to be overcome if one wants to be loyal to classical liberal principles and yet succeed as an academic. The ideas are exciting; the career is immensely satisfying and worthwhile. It is our purpose now to offer some suggestions to help you to achieve your goals.
For someone coming out of college, the decision to pursue an academic career is a tough one. This is true even more so for classical liberals, but you shouldn’t imagine that anyone else is getting a free ride. For one thing, almost everyone who starts graduate school is surprised and dismayed at the extent to which academic work today is becoming increasingly specialized and fragmented into artificially separated “disciplines.” Little of the scholarship you will read at first takes up the grand ideas that initially captivated your mind and made you want to study your subject. Instead, scholars focus on producing what will seem to you excessively narrow and technical work that may be read only by a few other academics.
That’s true for anyone going to grad school. The problem for classical liberals is that the field you want to work in is likely to be dominated by people hostile towards the ideas and sources you find attractive. They may find you especially threatening just because, in their view, they are defenders of truth and decency against the ruthless and Philistine world outside the academy – and an “outsider” is just what you may feel like at first. What you need to realize is that people who reject self-interest as a way to understand society may pursue their own self-interest with a nearly religious zeal. Your faculty, and your fellow students, may be hostile to the ideas you hold dear, and even to you personally if you push your ideas too aggressively.
It might be tempting, in the face of all this, to give up. Don’t! The attractions of life for a classical liberal in an academic setting are very real. It’s academics like you who will influence the understandings of ourselves and of the ways we live. The very ideas that attracted you to classical liberalism are under systematic and organized assault. Some of these attacks are simply ideological, and perhaps need not be taken too seriously. However, there are serious challenges to the classical liberal worldview, argued by bright, articulate, and passionate people. These challenges are not unanswerable, not by any means. But if classical liberals abdicate their responsibilities to answer these challenges and to educate the next generation of young scholars, then these challenges will carry the day. There will be no one around to answer the criticisms, or to develop new and even stronger arguments for liberty.
That is why your decision to enter the academy matters so much. As a matter of numbers, relatively few people pursue academic careers, compared to the hordes who head off to business, law, or medical school. But the number of students who attend college as undergraduates, and develop their essential worldview there, is increasing daily, and dramatically. Little systematic study of classical liberal literature takes place in high schools, and the ideals of the American founding are often hidden in protective, inoffensive coatings as if the ideas they embody were archaic and no longer important. It is to these undergraduates that academics get the chance to present their views.
Our goal is not to indoctrinate students, or to convert every student to a particular point of view. Our goal is to present an alternative view, an exposure to the classical texts that make the argument for human liberty, responsibility, and self-determination. If you are attracted to ideas and to an academic career, and if you are persistent and successful in the pursuit, not only will you be doing things which interest you, but you will also be enriching your students and our society.
The situation of the classical liberal in academia is challenging but not forbidding. We personally would have no other profession, and want to encourage those of you who would choose the scholar’s life. Indeed, despite the difficulties, there are real chances to make a difference. Academics really are interested in ideas, if you give them a chance and show them you are serious about debate and careful argument. They are also, for the most part, decent and fair-minded people who are keen to foster the intellectual development of their students and to assist those whose work seems interesting and full of promise. This is the academic environment that provides opportunities for you, provided you take the trouble to discover and pursue them effectively in ways that treat others with decency and respect.
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