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What To Do With What You Do Over Your Summer Vacation (2008)

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07/15/2008

We are right in the middle of a season of summer seminar season. Some students are attending only one seminar, and others are completing a rigorous circuit of seminars sponsored by the Institute for Humane Studies, the Independent Institute, the Cato Institute, the Mises Institute, the Foundation for Economic Education, the American Institute for Economic Research, and/or other organizations interested in building on the intellectual foundations of a free society. If you have been to one (or two, or three) of these seminars, how should you follow up and make the most of what you have learned?

If you have attended one of these seminars, you have met a lot of interesting people and been exposed to a lot of very interesting ideas. Perhaps you have taken a lot of very interesting notes. Rather than banish those notes to a hard-to-reach bookshelf or to the bottom of your sock drawer, I would like to encourage you to take those ideas, make them your own, and share them with others. Contribute to The Great Conversation. Start writing.

Trying to teach something to someone else is a great way to master it. I would recommend the following course of action. Begin with the most provocative or interesting idea you have encountered at one of the seminars, and write an article or a letter to the editor about it. Make sure it is no longer than 750 words. Why such brevity? First, brevity is the soul of wit. Second, being able to express complex ideas clearly and concisely takes a lot of practice and can never be learned perfectly. Winding, unstructured, incendiary rants can be fun, but they contribute little to The Conversation and perhaps even cause it to regress. Send the article to your campus newspaper, a local independent weekly newspaper, or another outlet. Let your ideas to raise the level of discourse.

You can develop your ideas (and strengthen your social network) by sharing your drafts with the people you meet at these seminars. Even if you don’t care about advancing the ideas you love, you should also write regularly because it is excellent practice for your professional life. I’ve been writing for a long time, but I haven’t written as frequently and regularly as I should have. Also, it has taken a very long time to develop anything resembling proficiency. Nevertheless, some of my favorite wisdom on the subject comes from a chapter title in D.N. McCloskey’s short volume Economical Writing: “fluency can be achieved through grit.” Or, as 1986 Nobel Laureate James Buchanan once said it a little more bluntly and a little less poetically, “keep your a** in the chair.”

There is value in writing that goes beyond personal development. If I remember correctly, Milton Friedman once said that he didn’t expect his endeavors as a public intellectual to change the world right off the bat. Still, he continued writing in order to keep the ideas intellectually viable in the public eye.

One fear — indeed, a fear I had for a long time — is that writing for general audiences would signal that one is not a “serious scholar” or “serious student.” It may be true that popular writing is a substitute for academic writing for some people, but I have been blessed in that I have found public scholarship to be a complement to rather than a substitute for research. Murray Rothbard and Walter Block are among the best examples of scholars who have blended their contributions to public debate with rigorous and active scholarly agendas. Rothbard in particular was one of the leading public expositors of libertarian ideas during the late twentieth century, and he was able to engage the public while also making important contributions to the disciplines of economics and history.

Writing is a road fraught with peril, particularly for perfectionists, but it is a road worth traveling. It has never been easier to contribute to The Conversation. With dedicated effort, you can help elevate the level of discourse and make a real difference.

Art Carden is assistant professor of economics, Brock School of Business, Samford University, Birmingham, Alabama.

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