Last year I went back to school. I applied, with misgivings, to a top-ten graduate program in foreign affairs, requested official transcripts from the colleges and universities I attended in my youth, solicited recommendations from friends who’d known me as an investment professional, updated my résumé, wrote a biographical note and a statement of purpose, waited for a decision. After what seemed a long delay, I was admitted, to my immense gratification, and I started attending classes in the fall semester. I’m on summer vacation now, a 72-year-old grad student with, to date, a 3.875 grade point average. Upon completing one more course I will have met the requirements for a graduate certificate in international economic relations. I have decided not to go on for the master’s degree, it’s far too costly, and, anyway, I promised my wife that I’d never learn anything again. She laughed.
The university I’m attending is located in Washington, DC, 120 miles northeast of my home in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. I’m a commuter. During the academic year, I drive to Washington once or twice a week, taking country roads up to northern Virginia, then the notoriously dodgy I-66 into the wilds of the District. I normally make the round trip in a single day, reaching home late at night, but sometimes, if I have to give a presentation or take an exam, I’ll head up a day early and stay in a hotel near the campus. That’s a treat, and I invariably complement it with dinner in a fine restaurant, usually steak and a two-shot tumbler of Irish whiskey. But mostly I just drive up, study in the library or the coffee shop, go to class, and drive down again, taking the same route coming and going. I don’t mind the journey, on the contrary, I love it, the peacefulness of woods and farmlands, the intensity of interstate and city traffic, the hours to myself. I listen to NPR on the way there in the morning and classical music coming home at night.
My social status is delightfully ambiguous. Students in their twenties and thirties always call me sir, often ask if I’m a professor. (No, I tell them, just a very slow learner.) I take an active part in class discussions, and sometimes, on a break or in the campus coffee shop, my classmates ask me about the topic I’ve chosen for a term project, or how I answered a difficult exam question. But they don’t seem to know what to make of me, and we have little outside contact. They have yet to invite me to join a study group. That’s fine. I don’t blame them. There is a lifetime of difference between us. I tend, rather, to form relationships with the faculty members, and, while we remain on formal terms during the semester, we switch to first names as soon as the courses end and the grades have been submitted.
The school in which I am enrolled affords graduate students some latitude in course selection, and I chose to take an historical survey of economic thought as one of my early electives. Taught by a distinguished scholar and gifted lecturer, the course was offered in the university’s Economics department, where it is, unusually, a first-year requirement in the doctoral program. We read extensively, primary as well as secondary sources, selections from all or almost all of the classic thinkers in the field, and I seized the occasion to write a short paper on the interaction of instincts and institutions in Thorstein Veblen’s economics. This summer, with time on my hands, I picked up his 1918 book, “The Higher Learning in America.”
Veblen’s treatment of the topic is an unsparing critique of universities as competitive institutions managed by the businessmen who serve as trustees and the administrators they hire. It is characteristically replete with gracefully worded but wholly unconvincing disclaimers of distaste or disparagement. He is, he maintains, merely describing patent matters of fact and setting forth their obvious logical implications. His argument runs like this: if education in a scholarly or scientific discipline makes people ill-suited for commercial life (as I can attest it does), then business success must make people equally unfit for engagement in scholarly and scientific inquiry, and even less apt for the leadership of a university. That’s plain speaking.
It is true that Veblen’s relations with the heads of several universities were contentious, and the author’s discreet footnotes to “The Higher Learning in America” contain, without attribution, illustrative anecdotes and telling opinions that assiduous biographers could probably trace to specific incidents he observed and individuals he met in the course of his checkered teaching career. His report on the state of higher education in this country may not be entirely disinterested. But Veblen was an acute observer, and recognizing that he has a point of view, perhaps even a score to settle, does not invalidate his thesis.
At base, he held, scholarly and scientific pursuits arise from, “idle curiosity,” one of the three primal drives that underlie human behavior. (The other native gifts are the parental bent and the instinct of workmanship.) People instinctively seek knowledge, and, while it might prove useful at some point, they value it above all for its own sake, not for any ulterior purpose—that’s the positive sense in which the desire to know is “idle.” And the university’s sole legitimate mission is the increase and dissemination of knowledge as an end in itself.
By “university,” however, Veblen meant only the graduate school of arts and sciences. He explicitly excluded the undergraduate college, whose purpose is to provide gentlemen with a certificate of discharge, and the professional schools, whose aim is to train them for gainful employment in the interest of conspicuous consumption. Under the leadership of businessmen, the institutions’ stated goal may still be academic excellence, but their real objectives are to increase registrations and grow the endowment fund. They do so by competing for prestige in the eyes of the uneducated, who may be induced to apply for admission, and in the view of ageing alumni, who can be called upon for donations and bequests. Both groups enable the school to gain still greater preeminence by attracting headline talent, adding to the impressive physical plant, and recruiting superior athletes. In this environment, the undergraduate college, professional schools, and sports programs progressively take precedence, the joyful search for pure knowledge becomes the dogged pursuit of academic credits, the rivalry for athletic supremacy swells beyond measure. And the true purpose of higher learning gets lost in the shuffle.
Veblen proposed an idealistic remedy, establishing free-standing graduate schools of arts and sciences, and, indeed, in 1919 he was one of the founders of the New School for Social Research. But the broad trends he identified a century ago, especially the emphasis on vocational training, have undeniably shaped contemporary higher education in the United States.
Full disclosure: unable to support a growing family on the strength of my education in the humanities, I earned a master’s of business administration, with a concentration in finance and accounting, and went on to have a varied, interesting, and fairly remunerative career in institutional investing. The graduate school in which I’m now enrolled is also professionally oriented; it prepares students for meaningful employment in international service. Several of the professors in my area of specialization are knowledgeable about the history of economics. They have read, and written about, the great political economists, and they tend to be more or less open to heterodox perspectives. Most, however, teach and practice mainstream economics without reference to anything published more than 10 years ago, 20 at most. Theirs is the conventional economics that aspires to the stature of physics, a social science that seeks to discover mathematically describable regularities and infer causal relationships.
Within the limits of their expertise, these educators have taught me useful skills. (I would say marketable skills, but people my age are not in great demand.) Under their guidance, for example, I’ve become respectably proficient in using Stata, a high-power statistical software package whose syntax is decidedly not intuitive, and, so equipped, I wrote a research paper that has passed the first stage of a scholarly journal’s peer review process. I do not denigrate vocational training in customary ways of thinking and standard analytical techniques. It has enriched my life, materially and otherwise.
I’ve also found other, more unexpected benefits in my current situation. The students in my program are a diverse lot. (So, in fact, are the teachers.) The school is exemplary in this regard, sees exposure to different cultures as a source of creativity. An official statistic confirms my observation: 20% of the school’s graduate students come from outside the United States. Some, no doubt, struggle to keep pace with the curriculum—the university offers them broad academic and sociocultural support—but I don’t have to grade their coursework, and, from my selfish point of view, they contribute substantially to the quality of my education. In a course on economic development, for example, students from low-income and emerging-market countries drew on their own experience and offered surprising insights into complex policy issues. That they sometimes found it effortful to express an idea in a language not their own simply meant we had to listen more carefully, ask questions, try to clarify their point. (Like them, I’ve taken substantive courses conducted in a foreign language. My first-year grades were unimpressive.) Trying to communicate across cultures is almost always rewarding.
And another, related discovery. My initial idea, the one I set forth in my statement of purpose, was to build on my knowledge of 20th century intellectual history by studying the political and economic stresses that currently threaten the European Union, trying to foresee the consequences of a possible breakup beyond the Brexit folly, the repercussions of resurgent right-wing nationalism and the entrance of Eastern European economies in transition, the implications of Germany’s potentially dominant rôle on a divided continent, Germany, with its martial history. I am acquiring the know-how to conduct this research. But that course in economic development, the one to which the foreign students contributed so much, opened my eyes to the problems of poverty and inequality in low-income countries, made me aware, in particular, of the desperate conditions in sub-Saharan Africa, a part of the world to which I’d previously paid scant attention. I’ve gained some understanding, admittedly superficial, of the economic issues facing these countries, the initiatives of multilateral organizations, the relative impact of financial, physical, and human capital, the need for infrastructure and institutions, the power of microfinance. Once again I wish I were young.
But I’m not. Apart from my writing and an occasional consulting assignment, I am in retirement, that blessed interval—may it last a few more years—after the brutal demands of work have fallen away and before navigating the health care system becomes all-consuming. For now, my corrected vision is sharp, blood pressure low, posture straight, gait steady, bones strong, and, most vitally, I have my wits about me. Once I earn the graduate certificate, I’ll continue to read in the field of international economic relations, and I may write one or two academic papers if I see a different research angle or find I have something new to say. But I plan to spend the better part of my free time as I always have done, reading philosophy, history, literature, giving poetry the unhurried attention it requires. Idle curiosity is not only an elementary instinct, as Veblen recognized; it becomes a physical addiction, perhaps the only harmless one. Making connections—seeing how ideas overlap, recognizing how facts touch one another, sensing, in the end, that everything is of a piece—releases serotonin, produces a chemical reward that never grows old. The experience is, precisely, as pleasurable as a good joke, one whose wholly unanticipated punch line suddenly alters the listener’s perspective. I’m superannuated, I have time to spare. And the owl of Minerva takes wing at dusk.
Philip Lawton has a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the French-speaking section of the Catholic University of Louvain and an M.B.A. in Finance from Northeastern University. His writing has appeared in Flying South 2018, JuxtaProse Literary Magazine, the Bookends Review, Cagibi (runner-up for the 2019 Macaron Prize), Streetlight Magazine, and the Bangalore Review. Since writing this piece, he has obtained his graduate certificate in International Economic Relations.