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Debating Tyler Cowen

Alt-acs and the scary prospect of public writing about something other than higher education.

January 14, 2019
 
 

If you click on cato-unbound.org, you will be taken to the Cato Unbound website where you can participate in a debate on The Ethics of Economic Growth. If you do click that link, you will find that the lead essay, The Case for the Longer Term, is written by the George Mason economist and widely read author Tyler Cowen.  And you will also see that the response essay, How Liberals Can Be Wrong on Growth but Right on Policy, is written by me.

How did I end up debating Tyler Cowen? The editor of Cato Unbound read my IHE review of Tyler’s latest book, The Progressive Case Against Tyler Cowen’s 'Stubborn Attachments.’,  and thought I’d be a good person to debate Tyler. (Along with Agnes Callard and Eli Dourado). In a lesson on the power of celebrity academic social media, that IHE book review seemed to get lots of traction once Tyler tweeted it out to his 121,000 Twitter followers.  

What do I make of debating Tyler Cowen on a Cato Institute website?

Mostly, the whole process has been terrifying.

Why terrifying? First, this is I think the first thing that I’ve written that strays beyond the world of higher education and digital learning.  Although I do work in some higher ed stuff.

By this point, I am very comfortable writing about higher ed for a higher ed audience.  You and I live in the same world.  I may be wrong about most things that I say related to higher ed, but at least I have some standing to make a higher ed argument.  After all, I’ve been working at the intersection of learning and technology for 20 years.  

Writing about economics is something that I might do in this space, but the starting point is always something related to higher ed and digital learning.  Taking my digital learning brain and applying it to something else - like the big question of the ethics of economic growth - is not something that I’m asked to do on the daily.

Nobody thinks twice about asking a traditional academic from a traditional discipline to opine about matters big and small.  Alternative academics not so much.

We alt-acs don’t have the disciplinary legitimacy to fall back on. We don’t have a shared intellectual tradition or a set of widely agreed upon methodological moves.

Alternative academics seems to be able to talk about one thing from an alt-ac perspective, and that is being an alt-ac. We don’t usually get to bring our alt-ac brains to the big questions outside of academia.

The second reason that debating Tyler Cowen is scary is that the debate is occurring on Tyler’s territory.

With higher ed, I’m sure of my lack of knowledge about almost everything related to the past, present, and future of the university.

Expertise on a topic only comes when one realizes how many blind spots, misconceptions, and unfounded beliefs that one holds.

With economics, I’m way too confident in my assertions.

Perhaps I’ll be able to steer the Cato-Unbound debate on the ethics of economic growth back to higher ed. Tyler is, after all, a professor. Surely he will have something to say about the future of higher ed.

I’m not sure, however, about the overlap between the readership of IHE and Cato-Unbound. But who knows.  Higher ed, and I suspect the readership of IHE, is way more ideologically diverse than most folks believe.

How do you think that non-traditional academics can find a public voice outside of our current subjects, networks, and platforms?

Should alt-acs be authoritatively writing about stuff beyond academia?

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