I swore never to read again after ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ gave me no useful advice on killing mockingbirds. — Homer J. Simpson
I’ve sometimes been surprised by how few ordinary Americans read important books—even texts that underpin widely held beliefs about our economy and society. Then at a cocktail party last year, I got into a discussion about a book with a fellow partygoer — the type of wealthy, intelligent, successful person who influences how all kinds of other ordinary Americans live — that I haven’t been able to forget.
My conversation partner was the respected chief executive of a noted company. Like many successful businesspeople, he was a vigorous advocate of free markets. Our conversation turned to French economist Thomas Piketty’s book Capital in the Twenty-First Century. After its publication in the U.S. last spring, the book generated significant media attention and had become the talk of Wall Street. I mentioned a few points —particularly Piketty’s statement (in the Introduction) that despite the mountain of evidence he had gathered showing how the spread of capitalism across the globe had boosted inequality, he didn’t intend to denounce capitalism or inequality.
Outrageous, said the chief executive. He began to rant. He viewed Piketty as a standard French socialist, out to revive Marxism for limousine liberals. “This whole global-wealth-tax idea,” he said, “is total horseshit.”
I myself was about halfway through the book. I asked my fellow partygoer how much of the book he’d read. None of it, he said. “Who has time?” All he knew about the book had apparently come from articles he’d read or television segments he had seen.
At that point, I excused myself to get another drink. But it got me thinking: How many people who criticized Piketty — or even praised him — had actually read his book? Surely my angry chief executive was in the minority.
A little Internet research made me feel worse. The Wall Street Journal used Amazon’s Popular Highlights feature and found that the last of the top five most popular highlights appeared on page twenty-six (in a book of more than 700 pages). Meanwhile, New York Times blogger, Justin Wolfers, was pleasantly surprised “by just how many economists surveyed had said they had read the whole book.” By his count, only fifty-five percent of the twenty economists who responded to a survey had finished Piketty’s work.
Really? Well, there’s still plenty of time to read Piketty, of course, and maybe more of us eventually will. Yet it all reminded me of something even more troubling that I had read during the heights of the Great Recession in early 2009. A Harvard economics professor, Amartya Sen, wrote about how he’d been puzzled by some of the comments he had heard from businesspeople, policymakers, and economists, who claimed to be adherents of Adam Smith. (Sen’s whole article is worth a read.) Sen noted that Smith, the father of modern economics, who published his hugely influential The Wealth of Nations in 1776, had “recently been much quoted, even if not much read.” And at that time, with the world economy in shambles and seemingly in need of government assistance, some self-proclaimed Smith adherents were insisting it would be better — and that Smith himself would have thought it better — if the government took a laissez-faire approach to the mess. Sen was mystified:
The present economic crisis is partly generated by a huge overestimation of the wisdom of market processes, and the crisis is now being exacerbated by anxiety and lack of trust in the financial market and in businesses in general…As it happens, these problems were already identified in the eighteenth century by Smith, even though they have been neglected by those who have been in authority in recent years, especially in the United States, and who have been busy citing Adam Smith in support of the unfettered market.
What is going on here? When did people — particularly credentialed, influential people who cite the great thinkers as they lecture others about how the world should work — cease to read the original texts that inform their judgments?
Maybe I was hypersensitive, being a graduate of St. John’s College, one of a handful of “great books” institutions that require reading original works. My professors would sometimes comment on how unusual it was for young adults our age to read so many seminal texts, but I never thought it applied to serious people at the top of their professions. Now I wanted to know: Has ignoring important books become the norm, both in education and life in general?
Of course, I needed to narrow my focus considerably if I wanted any kind of answer. With Sen’s observation in mind, I decided to focus on Smith’s The Wealth of Nations. How many influential economists and businesspeople, like my chief-executive friend, have read it? How many young people, who are likely to become influential later, are being required to do so?
Economics majors at Harvard, Princeton, and MIT aren’t [required to read The Wealth of Nations]. Not in full, officials at those colleges told me. One Smith expert said he doubted any college requires economics students to read the book to completion — granted, it was a difficult question to get people to answer. In a somewhat typical response, a Stanford media relations official said her department didn’t have the resources to query the entire economics department. Similar results came from other universities when they were asked to expand the question beyond Smith and beyond one department.
Gavin Kennedy, seventy-four, retired ten years ago from Heriot-Watt University in Scotland and has spent much of that time working on his blog, Adam Smith’s Lost Legacy, where he routinely corrects those who he thinks misrepresent Smith. It keeps him fairly busy.
Something changed in the teaching of economics in the 1960s, Kennedy said in a recent phone interview. Out went an emphasis on the history of economics and “in came the mathematics.” As the years passed, professors who focused on economic history retired and were largely replaced by professors with other specialties. Kennedy doesn’t have much hope that the pendulum will swing back in the other direction — where Smith’s original works might rally — but he hopes that those who go on quoting Smith will get their acts together.
‘I certainly think people who quote it and mention it and debate it and they haven’t read The Wealth of Nations, that’s a disgrace,’ he said. ‘If you haven’t read Adam Smith, you’ve no authority to quote him in support of that policy A or policy B.’
Oddly, Smith had a sort of rebirth as a philosopher (at least in more scholarly circles) in recent years, spurring, among other things, the new book How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life: An Unexpected Guide to Human Nature and Happiness, by Russ Roberts, a fellow at the Hoover Institute at Stanford. As Roberts told Reason magazine last fall, he wrote the book after reading Smith’s lesser-known The Theory of Moral Sentiments for the first time — after decades as an economist.
Roberts, like Kennedy, didn’t hold out much hope that public officials, wrongly citing Smith to justify their positions, would change their behavior, noting, “The devil can quote scripture.” And he didn’t hold out much hope that more people would take the time to read Smith in its entirety.
That’s how a few experts responded when asked about reading original works. N. Gregory Mankiw, chairman of economics at Harvard and chairman of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers from 2003 to 2005, noted that Smith is the subject of one of the first lectures in freshman economics — but his full works aren’t required reading.
“Maybe you can learn geometry from the original Euclid,” he says. “But it would be a lot more challenging and a lot more demanding.”
Well, I read Euclid — along with The Wealth of Nations, the Federalist Papers and many others — in college. Relearning geometry from Euclid’s Elements taught me about logic and creative thinking. Even more importantly, it taught me to start any search for a new idea by looking for the first principles and then working forward from there.
I learned how to think by reading the great books, boldly. It has led to financial success for me. And I’m not alone.
In a videotaped interview in 2012, billionaire inventor Elon Musk, founder of PayPal, Tesla Motors and SpaceX, said a passion for original ideas was a secret to his success. Musk argued that it is essential to base one’s thoughts not on what he called “analogy” — trying to invent something new by borrowing somebody else’s ideas — but rather on “first principles.” “Boil things down to the most fundamental truths and say, ‘OK, what are we sure is true?’” he explained. Doing so, he said, provides far greater opportunity for true innovation, even if it “takes a lot more mental energy.”
OK, but is reading The Wealth of Nations practical? Some people I spoke with shrugged and said few undergraduates will ever read it in full because, well, at 1,200 pages, it’s just too long. It would take an entire semester. It’s more practical, some of the people I spoke with insisted, to let subsequent thinkers boil it all down to the most important stuff.
I don’t accept that. Mankiw says, and I agree, that subsequent thinkers can help clarify ideas. But can’t they also distort ideas to advance biases and agendas — even if they’re unaware of what they’re doing?
Why should we be afraid to read the originals ourselves? Why are institutions of higher learning not requiring students to do so?
A clue might be found in how we now evaluate institutions of higher learning. Jon Ronson of the Guardian newspaper in London recently wrote about America’s worst-ranked college, Shimer College, here in Chicago. Shimer, like my own St. John’s, prides itself on teaching original, core texts. In Ronson’s piece, which inverts conventional wisdom about what is best and worst in education today, he points to the Andrew Rossi documentary Ivory Tower:
[T]he way to achieve prestige is to get high on the best colleges lists. Which means, as Richard Arum, a professor of sociology and education at New York University puts it, colleges are now locked in an “arms race” to provide increasingly awesome facilities — football stadiums and luxury student condos and swimming pools with tanning ledges… [S]tudents are getting hundreds of thousands of dollars into debt and it’s not going on education. It’s going on tanning ledges… The next day, as I watch YouTube videos of mass graduation ceremonies [at a huge state university], I see a shot of one student, sitting among hundreds of others. He’s written on his graduation cap, “Thanks Wikipedia.”
Our approach to education has not always been this shallow. In his best-selling 1987 book, The Closing of the American Mind, Allan Bloom notes that we stopped requiring anyone to read Adam Smith, or the Federalist Papers, or Homer starting in the cultural revolution of the 1960s — at around the time Gavin Kennedy says universities stopped focusing on the history of economics. Bloom, before his death in 1992, taught at several universities, including the University of Chicago and Cornell. “The old core curriculum — according to which every student in the college had to take a smattering of courses in the main divisions of knowledge — was abandoned,” Bloom writes.
I spoke with my friend Moran Cerf, marketing professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, about all this and he told me, half in jest, “So, your point is basically that people should not talk about stuff when they don’t know what they’re talking about.” There’s definitely some truth to that — those moments are where the lack of reading primary texts (to completion) stand out most.
Elected officials or corporate leaders taking the time to read Smith, Keynes, etc., might be too much to hope for. But the argument for not requiring more core texts in college seems to imply that there is not enough time for students to read the most creative, imaginative, and disruptive ideas in the history of the world. Meanwhile, the most common and loudest complaints about our educational system are that we are not turning out students who are creative, imaginative, critical-thinking problem solvers.
What if things were different? What if college students and policymakers were required to read these original texts — to mine the “first principles” they contain? What if captains of industry and finance had been required to read Adam Smith? A better understanding of his ideas might have helped the country avoid stuff like the Great Recession. Congress spent the twenty years leading up to the crisis dismantling checks on capitalism — something Smith clearly warned against.
Imagine if Wall Street executives who erroneously conflate Smith’s ideas about self-interest with Ayn Rand’s had read this sentence from Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments: “While prudence is of all the virtues that which is most useful to the individual; humanity, justice, generosity, and public spirit are the qualities most useful to others.” That’s akin to what Piketty is trying to tell us now — if we’d just read him.
Smith’s theories have been badly misinterpreted by people in positions of power. I’m not satisfied with shrugging off these misinterpretations by saying, “It’s part of the game.” There is no good reason why we should resign ourselves and let the philosophy of Homer Simpson win out. Let’s recognize Homer’s aphorisms for what they are intended to be: satirical jabs to help us recognize our laziness and hopefully change our behavior.
I think these problems are worsening over time, but they’re certainly not new. Twenty years ago, Noam Chomsky addressed this very topic in Class Warfare. When asked about his “impressive research” on Smith, Chomsky was blunt: He said he didn’t do any unusual research, he just read Smith’s writings.
“The version of him that’s given today is just ridiculous,” Chomsky said in 1995. “All you have to do is read. If you’re literate, you’ll find it out.”
How do you become literate? Start reading some books.
This essay originally appeared on Medium (June 2015) and is republished here with gracious permission of the author.
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