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I cannot recommend more highly George Stigler’s old autobiography, Memoirs of an Unregulated Economist. You will find him to be far more thoughtful, humble, generous and circumspect than any crude caricature you will ever see of him. Reading these sorts of books makes me sad for what has happened to education on two levels. First, he describes, on nearly every page, the vigorous and vibrant intellectual discussions which used to be commonplace among students, among faculty and between faculty and students. While there may be “verbiage” shared by these groups today, the kind of deep intellectual consideration of issues he writes about is flat missing on colleges today, at least in any regimented way. Second, it is truly sad that we are not immersing students more deeply into the history of ideas in all of their fields of study. I understand the opportunity cost of doing so, and that there are probably better ways to structure curricula – but we at the university level should at a minimum keep options open for these pursuits, and as best as possible to allow students to stumble upon these histories should they be of the intellectually curious type.

Here is Stigler on whether colleges are signals, and what their role is:

I am convinced that at least half of what one learns at a college or university is learned from fellow students. They live together and argue among themselves with vigor and candor that are inappropriate in discussions with faculty members, even tolerant ones. If one could attract good students without good faculty, one could run a fine university very economically.

Thus said the economics professor! Here is his (prescient) view on why online education will not soon replace the in the flesh and blood real deal (it seems a Hayekian tacit knowledge point to me):

One benefit of associating daily with another person is that communication of ideas becomes much more efficient. Even though Jones and I have always spoken English, and may even have gone to the same graduate school, each of us thinks somewhat differently; we each have a different order in which we think and probably a different pace in expressing ideas. Family members use words that have special meanings for them. A reference to “Z” brings to mind a tedious bore or a remarkable procrastinator; in our family, “Lizzie Bean” was to lead out immediately all one’s aces in bridge. So it is with every person, and that is why intimate association makes communication between people efficient and accurate. If I had known David Ricardo, I would be better able to understand his written words. That would be a help, because to this day the meanings of his theories are much debated.

That uncertainty, however, is also what makes lots of modern intellectual pursuits fun! Here is Stigler on the modern Social Justice Warriors taking over our campuses:

Good communication is essential to the great university. The faculty is too strong to be ignored, and too diversely opinionated to be a conceivable administrative body. Only rational discussion can achieve some measure of agreement. I believe that the excellent machinery of communication was one large factor in the much better history of events at Chicago during the widespread rebellions of the late sixties than at most other universities, for our faculty united behind the expulsion of a large number of young barbarians. The more radical of the rebelling students of the late 1960s were barbarians: They were prepared to suppress free speech and other traditional liberal values with violence in order to advance their intransigent demands., Yet they were less guilty, I think, than the large number of faculty members who, while criticizing coercive tactics, openly sympathized with the students’ desire to politicize the university. Indeed, without this widespread sympathy the student movements would have been much less effective and would not have left a permanent legacy of political engagement and strong partisanship in academic institutions.

I am sure THAT sentiment would go over well if repeated on campus today. Here he is on opposition to the creation and acquisition of new knowledge:

Max Planck said that a science progresses by having the old professors die off. I assume that he would have agreed, however, that shooting old professors would not hasten scientific progress.

Here he is on economists’ marketing capabilities:

Economists have been remarkably successful in selling their product this century. Every large business has at least one economist, and the largest business of all has a Council of Economic Advisors, which on suitable occasions is allowed in the White House. The only addition to the list of Nobel Prizes since its founding is Economics. Economics is often the most popular undergraduate major in colleges, it is believed to equip one for law school or business school. All of the tedious humor about the differences of opinion among economists (five economists will have six opinions, two from Keynes), or their infatuation with abstract thinking (“it’s all right in practice, but it won’t work in theory!”), are really envious jibes. Denunciation of America is almost the only bond that unifies European intellectuals, and criticism of economics is the chief bond joining the other social sciences. How much sweeter is envy than pity.

On public attitudes toward universities:

The publicly acknowledged benevolence of academic institutions and personnel is a source of wonder to me. The public’s attitude is illustrated by the fact that a federal judge may teach at a university, but is denied other forms of nonjudicial employment … this attitude has survived the obvious self-serving eagerness of the physical scientists to spend half of the nation’s income if given the chance. The social scientists would settle for what the physical scientists are already getting, thus displaying proportionate greed.

On economists pontificating outside the bounds of their “expertise:”

Probably the best way to approach this state would be to require academic scholars to publish their nonprofessional work anonymously. That practice would serve two ends. Anonymity would deprive the work of an authority that is attached the author’s professional status and probably should not be attached to writings outside his area of professional competence. Moreover, the employing institution would not be drawn into the maelstrom of current events. This recommendation may sound utopian, but it was how the premier journals of Great Britain were conducted in the first half of the 19th century.

And here, Stigler near and dear to my heart, discusses the now, Rule #1 in the disingenuous internet “arguer” playbook – launching serious people down deep rabbit holes …

That episode led me to reflect upon the nature of scientific criticism. Nothing is easier than to suggest new work to a scholar. Was the result under question not contradicted by the French (or better, Russian) experience? Would the results change if account were taken of the ethnic composition of the population? AD INFINITUM. Each such suggestion-criticism can be produced almost costlessly but may require many months of time to investigate. I was led to propose that critics would be rewarded if their suggestions are fruitful and taxed for part of the investigation when they are wrong. I was told by my colleagues that my suggestion, if adopted, would reduce the scholarly community to silence. I suppose that means that the price for successful suggestions was too low. 

And finally,

When someone says, “History proves,” that phrase should be replaced by, “I propose to assume without a shred of evidence.”

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