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Monday, May 4, 2015

Ask a Professor: Disciplines vs. Ideology

It's more important to master a method than a worldview


Q. Where should college students study in order to advance libertarianism?

It is a mistake to approach your education, especially your graduate education, as getting a degree in a worldview, rather than a degree in economics, history, or philosophy — that is, a degree in a discipline, a way of knowing.

For undergraduates, you should be looking for a school that will challenge you, and where high-quality faculty have the time and incentives to work closely with you. It’s great if those faculty are sympathetic to your views, but it’s not necessary.

If you really want to pursue a career forwarding liberty, the best thing you can do as an undergraduate is to be challenged by talented scholars (and peers!) who will not accept sloppy arguments — even if they agree with your conclusions — and who will help you understand the expectations of their discipline.

There is actually an advantage to be had if your faculty and fellows largely disagree with your worldview. If they are talented and dedicated scholars, they will expose you to the best counter-arguments to your beliefs and force you to learn how to carefully and accurately respond to them.

As you understand how and why people disagree with you, it may also provide you with much-needed empathy, hopefully avoiding the all-too-frequent sin of bad faith: assuming that those who disagree with us are either lying or stupid (or both).

Graduate students shouldn’t want a degree in liberty, either. Ideologues rarely end up making contributions that last. You want to approach your graduate education as a mentoring or coaching relationship, where you will learn how to be a good economist, historian, philosopher, or writer at the feet of those who know how.

Your decision-making filter for choosing a graduate program or while attending one should not be “will this forward my ideological goals?” It should be “will this enable me to get a good tenure-track job and contribute to my discipline?” Or perhaps “will this help me get a good job where I can contribute to serious intellectual debates?”

You have to master your discipline before you do anything else. If you do that, you will have the gravitas and the leverage you need to be able to make the contributions to liberty that are your ultimate goal.

Milton Friedman was once asked about why he was able to command so much respect, despite being an outspoken classical liberal in deeply illiberal times. He replied, downplaying the assumption,

I did have some of it, yes. [But] it’s because I have a firm root in something other than ideology. Because I was firmly based in a scientific academic discipline. I wasn’t simply a preacher or an ideologue or an unconnected philosopher.

Attending liberty-friendly universities and grad programs is not a bad idea. On the contrary, it can be a great and enriching experience. But you should not attend them with an attitude of specializing in libertarianism. Your degree isn’t in liberty, and if you act like it is, you are going to struggle to accomplish the professional and intellectual goals you’ve set out for yourself. Treat your education as an opportunity to become the best scholar and student you can be, not the best ideologue.

Go where you will work with the best faculty for you and for your discipline. Go where your ideas will be challenged and tested. Go where you will learn what it takes to succeed in a discipline. Go to graduate school where they will pay you and where you will not have to take on any debt. Go and master a discipline — and go with an attitude of learning at the feet of the masters.

If you do all of that, your degree in whatever field you pursue will be the start, and not the end, of your contributions to liberty.

You can read a Portuguese version of this article here


  • Steven Horwitz was the Distinguished Professor of Free Enterprise in the Department of Economics at Ball State University, where he was also Director of the Institute for the Study of Political Economy. He is the author of Austrian Economics: An Introduction.