President's Page: In Search of Prophets

Debora Spar, Photograph by Steve DeCanioOn October 5, more than 100 students took the subway to Wall Street. Buoyed by their anger and bolstered by widespread support from the faculty, they joined hundreds of protesters that day and that month, adding their voices to a growing howl of resentment over pervasive inequities—social, political, and above all, economic—in the United States.

It is a new moment on campus, and perhaps in history. We have had several protests at the College since the fall semester began, with students expressing concerns over both national issues and college policies. What connects these threads is a generational anger and a very real fear—both personal and demographic—that students graduating at the turn of the twenty-first century will face a tougher future than that of their parents; a future marked, perhaps, by permanently sluggish growth, an increasing gap between the wealthiest Americans and everyone else, and a country whose political elite seems to have forsaken leadership in favor of ideology.

The movement, if it is one, is only in its earliest phases, and we have yet to see if its adherents will be able to translate their anger into specific demands or policy proposals. Certainly, the basics are there: higher taxes on the wealthy; fewer loopholes in a distinctly loopy tax code; greater support for public education and student financial aid. These are the kinds of policies that would mitigate the division between the one percent and the 99 percent and assure that a seat at the top of the pyramid comes, as it long has in this country, as a result of effort, intelligence, and luck, rather than by birth.

Much has been made thus far of the protesters’ lack of political direction. Some blame this absence on divisions within the group, on its refusal to embrace hierarchy, and on time. But I think there is a more basic cause: the lack of an intellectual underpinning around which to coalesce. All revolutions, Keynes famously wrote, carry the distant echoes of some academic scribbler. The American Revolution had Locke and Montesquieu. France, the works of Voltaire and Rousseau. Soviet and Chinese communism grew directly from the theories of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Mao. Today’s protesters, by contrast—both the 99 Percent and the Tea Party, ironically—have few scribblers to guide or undergird them. Buried in the Tea Party’s demand for lower taxes and less government is a watered-down and attenuated version of Friedrich Hayek’s antipathy to state intervention and Milton Friedman’s embrace of unfettered markets. Buried similarly in the cries of the 99 Percent is a Keynesian yearning for fiscal stimulus and government intervention—for government to enter the lives of its citizens by regulating the economy and redistributing wealth. Yet all of these thinkers—Marx, Hayek, Keynes, Friedman—were writing in response to wholly different crises and radically different times.

Where is the philosopher of the digital age? The economist who not only studies inequality but proposes solutions for a world where people, money, goods, and ideas can cross borders in an instant? Sadly, he or she doesn’t exist. Instead, the disciplines that might have produced these thinkers—my own disciplines, most likely, of political science and economics—have grown narrower and narrower over the past several decades, fine-tuning algorithms and tweaking methodologies, rather than rewarding scholars for bold, never mind radical, ideas. Keynes would probably not receive grant funding for The Means to Prosperity, a provocative and wide-ranging volume that laid out specific recommendations for attacking unemployment.

And Adam Smith? He was a moral philosopher, concerned with the overlap between ethics, jurisprudence, and economics, an interdisciplinary pursuit that rarely flourishes in the academy today.

I don’t believe that higher education bears much of the blame for the inequities that now confront our country, or for the gloomy forecasts that have driven our students to the streets in protest. In fact, higher education remains one of the few drivers of socio-economic mobility in the United States and one of the few pathways by which a person born at the bottom of the pyramid can propel herself toward the top. Yet we should be doing more. In addition to supporting our students and wishing them well, we should be providing them with the sparks for great theories and the planks upon which to build real policies. Higher education does an excellent job of preparing our students to think. But in a world increasingly adrift, we also need to prepare them to do—to envision the problems before them as part of a broader conceptual whole, and to grasp for the grander visions that might eventually pave a way out.