“Young scholars” as a myth

The history of the “young scholar” identity began in 2000, with the first session with that title at the meetings of the History of Economics Society. Conceived by Sandra Peart and nurtured by her, it couples with the Summer Institute for the Preservation of the History of Economics which began in the same year. (If someone knows when the ESHET young scholars began, let me know…) The HES program has been expanded with the generous help of Warren and Sylvia Samuels.

I came into the program at year 3. And this blog owes its genetic moment to Young scholars program year 8. I can’t recall the exact motivations of our original idea, made worse by our reluctance to write a manifesto or introduction for the blog. Regardless of the good work done with the sessions and summer schools, the term “young scholars” has gained a life of its own. I think that part of what moved us to create the blog was a desire to take ownership of the “young scholar” talk that has contaminated our community.

With very few exceptions “young scholars” are there to be talked at, not talked to. Unfortunately in the few exceptions “young scholars” have been given the pulpit, they have lacked imagination and repeated old themes and solutions. I quickly forgive them, since they were never meant to think for themselves, but were cast to the role of a myth. Here is what i hear: The “young scholars” are nameless. The “young scholars” are not yet ready to be peers and need to be coached and nurtured, condescended upon, “poor things they make so many mistakes.” The “young scholars” are unemployed and they should fear the economics mainstream. The “young scholars” are advised to publish in the economics journals, where the elders are unable or uninterested to place their writings. The “young scholars” should cite the elder’s literature.

In the Barthesian sense of myth, “young scholars” are not breathing, walking and talking persons but a signifier in a semiotic play. They stand for the future of the profession, and importantly they have become a preferred way to present imperialist programs for the history of economics with a soft voice and warm heart.

If this blog was ever intended, even implicitly, to claim this identity, it has failed. I don’t think the label can be rescued from its current abuse. Hence, I need to rename myself, but what should that be?

9 thoughts on ““Young scholars” as a myth

  1. Tiago,

    i wish you would post more often. your posts are like finding a pint of guiness and a breakfast of bacon and eggs in an israeli cafe.

    anyway, and for what it is worth, what you write makes me ponder upon the ambiguity that has come to be attached to the word ‘youth’. on the one hand, and as you point out, there is the patronizing of the elders. but equally the very idea of ‘the young generation’ carries – or did until fairly recently – connotations of revolt and rebellion.

    i suspect that each generation (note the term) of the last two centuries has believed itself to be the first generation to carry on a revolt against the old order. certainly that generation who are professors now but were young in 1968 seem to believe that they invented the idea of youth revolt.

    hence the peculiarities and complexities involved when, as you describe, members of the generation of 1868 proclaim others as ‘young’ (part of the patronization is the implicit charge laid down that the ‘young’ now engage in an original oedipal revolt).

    of course, and as ‘we historians’ (the we cake need not be cut generationaly!) know, every generation in the modern world since around 1850 has considered itself to be in revolt against its parents (think of Samuel Bulter or Edmund Gosse in England, Ivan Turgenev in Russia). indeed, the revolt of the young seems to be built into the ‘modern world’.

    so perhaps it is not so suprising that the first post-modern generation (that would be us) have a problem with having the label ‘young’ – with all the modernist baggage that that appellation carries – placed upon us.

    anyway, as i said, thanks for the posts – they brighten up my bored and idle moments of searching the web for some distraction from the current history that i happen to be reading.


    1. Thanks for the kind words!
      You got it. My predicament is ambivalence. I am writing a history of 1968 radicals in economics and having to deal with “youth” as historical object and historical subject implodes the oedipal calling. Better still, I think it pushes it out. I can’t decide on the “father” i should be killing.

  2. Nice post, Tiago (I like the comics book cover by the way). I hope it is not be read as an official statement that you are leaving the blog! Should I remind you that your very own definition of ‘youth’ is ‘less that 5 years older than you’, which warrants you (and us) eternal youth, indeed. More seriously, I also see your statement as a refusal of being taught HET, with the feeling that we can’t be taught how to do HET in a period in which we still have doubts (or disagreements) over what HET is about, after all. Did the elder have the same interrogation in the past? Well, there have been several changes in the discipline over the past two decades (the rhetorical turn, the contextual turn, the SSK turn and so on …) so others might have felt the same way. But what has changed drastically is that few of us, unlike the previous generation, are actually teaching HET in our respective institutions. I teach general economics and financial management, hence the increasing feeling that HET should not be taught the classic way, with a stable and rigid curriculum. What can we transmit to the “younger” except our own doubts and wanderings?

    1. We will all leave the blog, but it is not yet my time.

      My concern is that “youth” as you indicate, has been captured by the discourse on competing programs in HET (imperialisms): the history of science approach, the rhetoric approach, the rational reconstruction … My conviction is that I have nothing to learn there. I was taught how to do history, and the first lession is that it is a craft. You learn by doing it, by seeing others do it, by admiring other’s work and trying to emulate it, by developing your pen and your mind. There is no silver bullet to save us, and all this “youth” talk is just distracting, unadvertedly I am engaging in it, a prisioner of it, can’t talk about nothing else…

  3. If I can’t find a job this year, which is likely to happen, and the following years as well, then: does it mean that I’ll be a young scholar forever?

    What a wonderful world: we can experience both eternal youth AND unemployment!

  4. There is a fundamental contradiction in this statement, right?

    You complain both about “YS” who reject the leadership and guidance of the older scholars, but you also complain about old ideas and solutions. It seems that you can’t have it both ways.

    Is there a mechanism of evaluation which allows you to distinguish “mistakes” from whatever you, personally, think is knowledge increasing?

    I can certainly understand the appeal of a non-economic approach to history of thought, however — the internal critique (to economics itself) can never pass muster if it does not have some way to evaluate robustness and efficiency. Being supplicant to the clericy of the status quo seems to purposely preclude any dynamism in an already irrelevant discipline.

    What also bothers me is the leap from laity to clericy which seems to be implicit here. What is the process you suggest which bridges this gap? If we become our fathers with no adolescence, is that a coherent or a useful mechanism?

    I think I have come to terms with the idea that other disciplines are better suited to discover the history of economics than those attracted to economics itself. It seems sad, but I think this post helps me understand more fully the inevitability of that result. There is too much ideology at stake for those that gravitate towards the discipline.

    Maybe we agree in spirit but not in detail?

  5. I believe the dictum is, and has always been, “Children should be seen, not heard.”

    Perhaps there is nothing new in the establishment seeing new contributors as youths who have not yet learned enough to contribute anything valuable. It is to be expected that those who set up a church, would expect others who intend to elaborate on it, to know it well and know the changes that went before. The Youth is indeed the future of the discipline, assuming they stay with it, and in that sense the ‘myth’ is a very useful vehicle. Free conference registration, free journal copies and possibly a bit of money for travel is not a bad deal for graduate students who have zero earnings anyway.

    I, for my part, probably could have applied to be a young scholar at the forthcoming HES conference, but I chose to submit a session and go for broke. I’ve had my free money and I’d like to think that I was talked to and not at – but I had to fight for that. For my part, its time to see what new graduate students are thinking about, and I couldn’t do that if they didn’t apply to be young scholars at the conference, and did not identify themselves as such.

    I will attend their sessions – if my own paper is approved, and hopefully people will listen to me and read my stuff because I made them sit up at previous conferences, where I was the young scholar. Will I criticise their work if it it’s no good, surely. Will I protest if I disagree, absolutely. Would I do that if it was an established academic? Oh yes, even more so. Some people may lack confidence in their own work, and so choose not to disagree with their peers or elders (falsely believing they are therefore exempt from criticism). They find the unemployed (and ever-job-seeking) graduate student an easy target. Sadly that will always be the case – so the only answer is to know your stuff. Inside out. If you’re challenged at a presentation just reply. Confidently, logically, and with practised ease. It’s a lot of work, so get to it.

    Oh, and I think it is right that you want to re-name yourself. I’ve had the same issue myself. You are no longer a grad student. It doesn’t mean you should forget that you are young too. “We don’t stop playing because we grow old, we grow old because we stop playing.” Have faith, the youth is the future, but they are also the present.

  6. As someone who was there at the inception of the Young Scholars program of the HES, I can shed some light on the history here that will confirm Tiago’s impressions. You must take this with a certain degree of suspicion, mind you, as I am an economist who lacks formal training as a historian qua historian, and so am not well qualified to discuss history or to provide proper historical context.

    More than a decade ago, a bunch of the old duffers that populate the HES Executive Committee realized that they were running out of swine before which to cast their pearls. Being economists, and lacking historical sensibilities, they quickly came to the conclusion that, as people respond to price incentives, the appropriate way to recruit more swine would be to offer them a monetary incentive to attend the HES conference. Given that the Society was generating a bit of income from its journal, which published the historical musings of these old duffers, it seemed a natural completion of the circle to use these funds to pay off a bunch of youngsters to come and sit before the seat of brilliance. The cost would be relatively small in terms of effort: perhaps put a few minutes into reading a paper by one of these misguided children and sit though a session worth of mind-numbing presentations. In return, the old duffer could hold forth on the many flaws of the paper in question, suggest any number of his or her works that the youngster could consult with profit and cite in the revised version of the paper (boosting one’s citation count in the process!), and perhaps even have the youngster buy the old duffer a drink at the cocktail reception on the off chance that said duffer might be a referee for the paper once submitted.

    And, of course, this all worked fabulously well. The swine responded just as predicted, and the YS coordinators were swamped with proposals by youngsters eager to learn at the feet of the masters and by old duffers wanting to get in on the pearl-dispensing action. In fact, it proved to be such a great deal for the old duffers that they decided to con an even older duffer Warren Samuels (and his wife) into donating a pile of money to the Society in order to allow them even greater opportunities to hold forth, get free drinks, and mold the minds of the next generation in their own image.

    Of course, all of this history has been very secret until this point, since to make it public would be to cast the old duffers in a somewhat unflattering light. This required that an alternative history be crafted. Of course, the old duffers, having little in the way of historical sensibilities, were able to come up with ideas that were lame, at best. But they would provide at least a fig-leaf of cover. The reader will no doubt be shocked at the ridiculousness of these ideas.

    1. “We were young once, too, and we learned a great deal from the older generation at the time, and even sought out the opinions of the older generation on our work, recognizing that they had something very valuable to offer us.”

    2. “The fact that the older generation took the time and showed enough interest to comment on our work back in the old days suggests that we ourselves should give back to the next generation.”

    3. “With travel budgets increasingly limited, providing societal funds to support travel to the HES conference may make it possible for some to attend who could not otherwise do so.”

    4. “By giving these young scholars a one-year’s membership in the Society and the accompanying JHET subscription, these young scholars will become further connected with the Society and become long-term contributing members.”

    5. “If we put most of the young scholars in sessions dedicated to young scholars, we will encourage an environment that is conducive to their development and that may be less intimidating than a regular session.”

    6. “This program will help young scholars connect with each other and with the larger community of historians of economics simply through their attendance at the HES conference. The field will be just that much more rich as a result.”

    Of course, all of these reasons are simply silly, but it bears keeping in mind that these were simply cover for the self-serving motives of the old duffers. It is laughable to think that these old folks would have any interest in giving back, in devoting any sort of massive efforts to help nurture the careers of young scholars, or in learning from their work.

    1. The comment by Steve (my President, my sympathetic editor, my soon to be collaborator) gives me the chance to dispel doubts about the meaning of this post.

      Except for the image, none of the words of this post are meant ironically or sarcastically. So when I say Sandra “nurtured” or Warren and Sylvia are “generous” i truly mean it, without hesitation or ambiguity.

      My subject is what has come on the side of the merit worthy efforts of the HES and ESHET (i.e. I appreciate the cash), and that is a certain attitude and “talk about young scholars” and their problems that does not ask for their opinion and ascribes to them interests that I, as one of these young scholars, don’t subscribe to. (I think I make this clear when I say the term has gained a life of its own.) The post expressed my misgivings about this identity of “young scholar” with which I would like to identify but cannot. The “talk” endangers to limit my access to venues, to moneys, to positions of responsibility. And I object when others speak in my behalf.

      I have a great respect for the scholarship of those that preceded me, I see no other way to bring our community towards self-improvement than an appreciation of what has been done, and done well. My recording of a set of oral histories of our community (at my own personal expense) i believe testifies to my seriousness.

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