The Independent Review aims to be an "interdisciplinary journal devoted to the study of political economy and the critical analysis of government policy," which covers "economics, political science, law, history, philosophy, and sociology." (1) This issue of TIR intentionally widens its scope by considering how great works of literature can enrich our understanding of political economy.
The study of literature was once a pillar of the liberal arts--the arts that are essential for the virtuous ordering of the free will of free persons in a free society. However, in today's universities and throughout society, attention to great works of literature continues a long decline. One indication of this decline is that the number of bachelor's degrees conferred to English majors in the United States fell by one-third between 1970 and 2016, even while the number of students earning degrees in general more than doubled. The share of English majors in the total college student population fell by more than 70 percent between 1970 and 2016 (National Center for Education Statistics n.d.). There are many theories about this decline, but Victor David Hanson makes a powerful case that "the liberal arts weren't murdered--they committed suicide." Many of those teaching the liberal arts, such as literature professors, have made their courses unappealing by pushing radical ideologies and obscure debates into the classroom. These classes are "designed to offer ... proof of preconceived theories about contemporary modern society," so the students in them "are assumed by [their] end to be outraged, persuaded, galvanized, and shocked in politically acceptable ways. Usually they are just bored, as supposedly with-it professors endlessly regurgitate the esoterica picked up in graduate schools" (2018). Although Hanson is referring to the teaching of history in this observation, he could easily have been writing of literature courses.
This needn't be the case. Great literature engrosses the reader and turns the mind to contemplation of the most important truths as well as to the consideration of how individuals and societies should lead their lives. I experienced this firsthand in a freshman English class taught by a revered scholar, George Panichas, who edited the journal Modern Age for more than two decades.
Because there is so much to be gained from reflecting on the great works of literature, The Independent Review issued an invitation to our past contributors, referees, and others--most of them economists by training--to contribute to this symposium. We explained thatthe papers in the symposium will examine great...