Great ideas are earned through hardship. It is a conviction that requires no argument, inscribed into our collective consciousness. As I have been writing/researching about Milton Friedman’s popular writings, I was surprised by the (popular) claim that Friedman was for many years an outcast in the economics profession, the proof was that such a respectable place as Duke University refused to carry his books (the specific source was a celebration of Friedman’s life by Robert Samuelson in Newsweek).
Milton and Rose Friedman write in their autobiography Two Lucky People, page 341 in the 1999 edition, of a letter sent to them by Mark Rollinson in 1989, who 30 years earlier had been a student at Duke University,
My years at Duke … were not happy ones. … To make matters worse, most of my fellow students and all of my professors held my views on several subjects in overt disdain.
One day after particularly severe ridicule in an economics class I went to the professor after the session and told him that I was quite certain that I was not stupid and I asked him if there were not at least some economists who shared my views. “Oh yes,” he said “as a matter of fact we’ve discussed you frequently here at the faculty level. You’re nearly a clone of some chap in Chicago named Milton Friedman. It’s truly amazing.”
Well, I went running over to the library with your name in hand, only to find that you were in the name catalogue. On consulting with my professor later, he explained that Duke had a system of screening new material by the appropriate department and the Economics Department did not consider your work worthy of carrying.
Whereupon I went to the Dean of Men … and made an offer: put Friedman into the library or take Marx out; otherwise I would write a letter to the editor of every newspaper I could find.
They opted to add you and keep Marx.
When you received the Nobel Prize, I was prouder probably even than you, as you might imagine.
In many ways this is a fantastic story. Extraordinary because of Rollinson’s report of ridicule by his teachers, remarkable because the faculty discussed the views of an undergraduate student and ranked him with the maturity and depth of the third winner of the John Bates Clark Medal (in 1951, and an accolade held to be more dear than the Nobel). The set of claims is so unlikely that one questions if Rollinson is not a hoax. Was he indeed a student? Yes, he was. The registrar office of Duke University has a record for a Mark Rollinson attending Duke University from 1954-1958 and earning a BA in Economics on 6/2/58, around the exact time implied in his letter to Friedman.
If Rollinson was at Duke then perhaps the rest of the story might be true. Who were the teachers that so freely disabused the views of their students? I could not track down the exact faculty list for 1954-1958, which at the time had economics and business and management together, but there is a picture of the Faculty in 1948 that gives us a sense of who was who. Of those pictured some had left by the mid 1950s (Allen, Haines, MacMilan, Williams), but the two core figures remained, Calvin Bryce Hoover and Joseph Spengler. On Rollinson’s arrival at Duke, Hoover an international economist, and an intellectual force behind the creation of the Office of Strategic Services and later the CIA, was President Elect of the American Economic Association. Spengler was to be President in 1965. On any account both men were Conservatives, and the allusion to Marx trumping Friedman in the Library catalogue suggests a Duke economics that clashes with all oral histories I have heard of the place. There is no record of any Marxist or even a left leaning faculty, and at the height of the McCarthy’s hearings it is unlikely that Duke was a Marxist Commissariat. Duke is Blue, not Red. That said, Hoover and Spengler, as others in the faculty, were raised in the Institutionalist tradition (incidentally so was Friedman) and they might have objected to Friedman’s neoclassical tone. Political conservativeness does not guaranty a liking of Friedman.
What about the claim that the Economics Department was screening Library acquisitions? Asking faculty members and librarians, all were surprised that a academic department would have such influence. The standard procedure was already for the Library to request yearly reading lists from departments, and in addition purchase the bulk of what was produced by the most prominent academic presses. This still left the possibility that Friedman might have been left out.
Libraries apparently are not very good at keeping records, at least not of themselves. Once Duke Libraries moved from the print catalogue to the electronic one any reference to date of acquisition was lost. To discover if Duke held any of Friedman’s books I would have to inspect the acquisitions lists for each year. Or I could just cross my fingers and look at the surviving copies hoping to find a suitably old one.
I found three copies of Friedman’s Essays in Positive Economics in the shelves. Copy numbered 5 was a fifth printing of 1966. copy numbered 6 was the third printing. Copy number 2 was the original 1953 edition.
I feel certain that there was plenty of Friedman in the Duke Libraries in 1953-1958. As I noted above, he was a Clark Medalist, and had published widely in the academic journals. He however had not published many books. Besides the collection of items in Essays in Positive Economics, I found only one remaining item from 1945. Friedman would rise to popular stardom only in 1962 with his Capitalism and Freedom, his role as adviser to the Goldwater campaign, and his time as columnist at Newsweek.
I am inclined to read Rollinson’s story as a constructed memory. There is contrast between the hold Friedman had on the public imagination, as a representative of the economics profession in the 1970s and 1980s, and the influence he would have had in the economics curriculum of the 1950s. Rollinson might well have read little Friedman as an undergraduate, but read plenty of him later as a consumer of media. His grievances with the Duke faculty were objectified in his sense of loss of Friedman.
Returning to my initial question: Why are stories of intellectual hardship and exclusion so eagerly accepted, even when they are so implausible? What comes out of this record is that these stories are not just stories of the hardship of the intellectual (Friedman) but also stories about the hardship of the public (Rollinson). The public had to battle with Friedman to earn (deserve) his economic insights. Rollinson had to oppose his teachers, the Library, the Dean of Men. Through this narrative of obstacles public knowledge is a labour deserving personal worth.
Note: To anyone reading from the Hoover Institution. I would much value a copy of the 1989 letter of Rollinson to Friedman currently at the Friedman papers, on the chance that an address or other reference in the letter might help me locate the principal. I would much like to contact him.