Academy, society, and personal growth: Some thoughts on our modern malaise

May 19, 2021

NOTE: I served as an instructor in the Economics Department at Tufts University for four years from 1979 to 1983, but I was unable to complete my Ph.D. dissertation within their three-year deadline. I wrote this short essay as a farewell tribute to my students.

What is the aim of a university, and is it being achieved? My goal is constructive critique: to open a broader perspective on some patterns in which we reside.

But first, a caveat: everything is of degree. We never are single-purposed, and – while living – reach no defined end. We rather form part of an ongoing flux, in which we move and are moved. Perhaps all we can do is learn.

A process of learning means risk, confronting of doubt and unsureness. Environs which stress fear of error, teach fear of learning as their net result. The courage to face being wrong should be nurtured, along with our precious diversions. Difference – unguarded – will wither; the essence of learning would open our minds, and a welcome to others unlike us. Here conformism has no real place, but as a symptom of blindness to fear. Where do we imprint our defensive ways, displacing of trust (if not truth)?

In part we should blame academics itself, for cleavage of learning from doing. If purpose – thus value – in theory is action, ‘purity’ has a high cost. ‘Learning’ itself must be learned by doing, not just by talking about. In sum, we must live our abstractions, if they would hold any worth.

Economics is also at fault. Veblen’s critical words still apply to modern “habits of thought,” that our “facile recourse to inscrutable … theory … has saved the economists from being dragooned into the ranks of modern science.” Schumpeter called it “persistence so stubborn as … to raise the question of sincerity.” No one aware of unorthodox writings, over the past ten years, could deny textbook theory is in full collapse. Look at the state of our world.

Economics – as science of choice – is inherently open-ended. Yet economists casually translate from data without any theory of interpretation, or even a sense of its need. Economics persists in mechanical modes, though its subjects – as systems – resist any closure. This is our problem of learning, again.

Learning brings organizational change, restructuring concept and form. For theories or management systems, one homologous issue pertains: if not well-designed to their goals and milieux, pathology shows in behavior. Persons, firms, entire societies – rigid – when stressed, have defensive reactions. To adapt calls for revaluation, and recognition of error. If we fear to confront our mistakes, “the past may continue to rule the present” by means of commitments we dare not address, according to Kenneth Arrow. “This thinking … gives rise to the greatest tragedies of history.” Should we not speak our concern, whenever such patterns of thoughtlessness loom?

We are models in all that we do with our time, if learning involves imitation. Indifference will teach us complacence, where cynical impotence is the result. We ought more to nurture our own indignation. Who fears to protest an injustice abandons a vital essence of self. Life is not lived as a spectator sport, and theory is all in its use: too often our lights leave us blind to their shadows.

The point is that learning is more of a process than in any set of details. The latter is easy to teach and to test for, but ill serves our need for perspective. We never may see what we miss or displace, and habits are formed on whatever we do. Caught in mechanical webs, we grow helpless. Can we not see our own role?

In this sense, we live our own lessons. The main realm in which we lack choice resides in the cold fact of choice itself. The rest is but planning with limited vision, revealed in our every endeavor. This we should learn.

For habits, akin to routines, save attention. Careless methods of thought – left in place – impede us in all that we do. If we constantly teach, much the worse: we transmit to others in turn. Contagion is rife in our learning environs, where patterns – once set – imitated, endure. But a system which cannot adapt invites tragedy, Arrow’s warning unheard. The frontier for our bursting Age lies in us – not Out There, but in Spaces of thought. Without such awareness, we squander our future in conflict instead of new growth.

Economics – as science of ‘scarcity’, trade-offs and unpursued dreams – has generally sidestepped the problem of knowledge; ‘perfection’ yields neater results. Thus blinded to shadows we venture our guidance in realms not so nicely contained. The cost shows so plainly in failures of learning, we might well deny all our sight than encounter the staggering systems around us.

To see them would call for a lonely effacement. Herbert Simon but scratches the surface with “bounded rationality”. Nicholas Kaldor rails orthodoxy as “a major obstacle to the development of economics as … science…” What could this possibly have to do with the structure of our education? The answer is, fearfully, everything.

Lord Kaldor explains it thus: our preoccupation with ‘scarcity’ rests on a claim of ‘decreasing return’. This “principle of substitution” would emphasize limits to growth and resources and only virtue in rivalrous ‘competition’: “attention is focused on what are subsidiary … rather than … major forces…” This doctrine displaces an alternative view, of “essential complementarity … far more important … for change and development than … substitution…, which makes ‘pure’ … theory so lifeless…” Kaldor’s view – expanded – yields a suggestion of staggering scope.

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Guided in part by traditional views, all our systems promote competition. We learn to cope with its pressures, for better or worse, as victims and victors alike. Divided, we still try to conquer. We never may see what we miss.

Information, as a good, is peculiar; traded, its sum will but rise. ‘Scarcity’ thus cedes to growth in exchange, and virtue in cooperation. This is exactly what Kaldor is saying: ‘competitive’ rivalry in such transactions reduces the total for all! He calls for a radical shift in approach: “without a major act of demolition – without destroying the basic conceptual framework [of orthodox economic theory] – it is impossible to make any real progress.” My work will justify most of his claim, here but applied in one realm. It spreads throughout all of our systems.

Economics has never stressed learning, or theories of organization. The problem is methodological, that our tools must have additive acts to grind. Interdependence cannot be so summed, but may be partially modeled. As for learning – an organizational change, in construct and structural form – we lie helpless, within the traditional mode. ‘Closed-system’ thinking will lead us astray, applied in an open milieu. That we are the latter, becomes the point.

Designing for competition within a locale where sharing increases our output – among complementary doings, like learning – will frustrate the purpose involved; here we create our own drag, essentially taking a poison for cure. Responding to sluggish performance by stepping up rivalrous pressure confounds; threats only make things worse. The management literature shows a clear pattern in organizational stress. Defining it ‘out of the field’ is our failure; we cannot see outside this self-imposed blind, though symptoms quite truly surround us.

Where primary needs are subverted, whether placed out of reach or control, in frustration we emphasize subgoal pursuits. One might well interpret concern over grades – or faculty power games – thus; a test of the former suggests this is so: welcoming student feedback on grades – if done properly – seems to reduce such concern; opening spans of control eases pressure and frees up attention for learning. The experience is but suggestive, although in combination with other techniques may reveal an illustrative failure. Jacques Barzun suggests that “we see … all around us the menace of the untaught.” Our academies suffer neglect of such needs, though they fester in social malaise.

Cooperation itself must be learned, along with a reasoned resolve to dispute. We teach competition and ‘getting ahead’, where ethics are ‘purely’ for God or the classroom. In a world of trade-offs and ‘substitution’, my needs and yours will conflict. If markets reward ‘by the curve’ – as we teach – then everyone gains at another’s expense. “In that world, baby, you’re on your own; I’m looking out for myself!” Divided, we still try to conquer. Will we never learn?

‘Complementarity’ says something else. Kaldor goes back to Adam Smith, who “gets bogged down … in prices for products and factors…” Here is “where economic theory went astray … focusing … on … allocative functions of markets to the exclusion of their creative functions.” Schumpeter made the same point; so have others, some for a very long time. Why are we deaf to the din?

We all have been taught the same way, and – speaking of Smith – he offers perspective: “The discipline of colleges and universities is in general contrived, not for the benefit of the students, but for … the ease of the masters.” The surprise of students – confronted with this, in the form of a concrete example – amazes, attesting so well on our failure to learn that complacence breeds impotence as its reward.

Liberty is quite in danger, here, if we do not stand in its stead. Thought is our guard against folly, in voting and personal choice. Its absence would threaten us all.

Education lies not with the classroom or grades – indeed, there seems little in either. Study is a style of life, nurtured in practice a lot more than thought. Can we really teach learning?

By learning ourselves, perhaps – if learning would be imitation. We – as captives of thought – if excited, may captivate others as well. But to do so will cost us control, or maybe just its illusion. As Barzun reminds us, the “unself-governed” are also “therefore ungovernable.”

Illusion is more at the crux of concern; it and true learning cannot coexist. And shooting our messengers only would blind us to Arrow’s appalling alert. We meet with results too late; at moments of choice our sole guidance is theory. This is the reason for learning, which all our grades and neat measures displace. As we never see what we miss, our only salvation is opening minds.

This personal challenge applies to us all – presidents, paupers alike. Blindness proves no escape, and also abides as its central regard. Learning will unveil new doors, to other frontiers in our time. Yet poised on the lip of extinction, we may spring still to fanciful flight. But are we prepared to look at ourselves as we are – to confront disillusion?

We only may live our own answer. Speaking it misses the point, otherwise, and mostly just generates noise. We all have much better pursuits, I suspect, for the use of our dwindling time.


Teaser photo credit: By Raphael – Stitched together from, Public Domain,

Frederic Jennings

Frederic Jennings has a Ph.D. in Economics from Stanford University, and is President of the Center for Ecological Economic and Ethical Education (CEEEE) located in Ipswich, MA. Frederic also is on the staff of Biodiversity for a Livable Climate ( as their ecological economist.

Tags: economics education, Education, learning