Alumnus Andrew Humphries (SF07) on Economics as the “Eighth Liberal Art”

July 11, 2019 | By Rebecca Waldron

Andrew Humphries (SF07) is pursuing a PhD in Economics at George Mason University and has taught at schools in the United States and Guatemala.

This fall, Andrew Humphries (SF07) will be entering the fourth year of his economics PhD at George Mason University. We recently sat down with Humphries to talk about his interest in economics and teaching, as well as why he thinks St. John’s offers the best kind of education for any student—especially those looking to enter the field of economics

Why did you decide to come to St. John’s?

I got excited about economics in high school back in Houston and knew that I wanted to get my PhD in economics someday. I was especially interested in a group of very philosophically oriented economists called the Austrian School. They constantly discussed the practical consequences of ideas. They discussed Smith and Marx, Descartes and Kant, Tocqueville and Mill. My intellectual heroes in that school thought it was important to get a liberal education. F.A. Hayek, for example, who won the Nobel prize in Economics in 1974, wrote, “The physicist who is only a physicist can still be a first-class physicist and a most valuable member of society. But nobody can be a great economist who is only an economist—and I am even tempted to add that the economist who is only an economist is likely to become a nuisance if not a positive danger." So I knew that I wanted a real, liberal education.

Around the same time, a mentor of mine was starting his Montessori teacher training. I spent time in the training with his cohort and started becoming interested in the philosophy of education. My mentor shared this book with me, The Habit of Thought, written by a St. John’s alumnus named Michael Strong. The book talks about bringing what he calls Socratic Practice into classrooms to foster radical self-reliance and independent thinking. He mentions the Great Books movement at St. John’s and the philosophy of teaching at the school. That’s how I first became interested in St. John’s. So it was the Austrian economists and their interest in the philosophy of science and political philosophy, in combination with Michael Strong’s excellent book The Habit of Thought, that got me to want to go to St. John’s in the first place.

What did you do after graduation? Why did you decide to take some time before entering your PhD?

I never felt in a rush to do it and I wanted to explore my interest in teaching. I got a job as a Montessori secondary teacher in Houston. While I was teaching, I got Montessori secondary teacher training and a master’s in education. A lot of my career so far has been applying the attitudes and skills I learned at St. John’s directly in the classroom. I taught geometry and we did the first book of Euclid’s Elements. I also taught some chemistry and we did Faraday’s Chemical History of a Candle. After doing that for a few years, I went to India and I taught at a public policy organization that had a branch that did courses in political economy and public policy. I helped organize and teach at those for a couple of years, and then I went to teach in a liberal arts college in Guatemala.

What was that experience like?

It was great! I was able to introduce very St. John’s elements into the program. The year I was there, we did Euclid, the history of astronomy using Kuhn’s The Copernican Revolution, and sections of Ptolemy and Copernicus, mechanics from Archimedes through Galileo and Newton, as well as some biology like “On the Parts of Animals” through Harvey and Darwin. The whole ethos of the classes was based on shared-inquiry dialogue and exploration like at St. John’s. The college was named after the philosopher of science, Michael Polanyi, who talks in some of his writing about how the scientific community uses dispersed knowledge in a way that can’t be planned in advance by any subset of the community. That theme of the use of knowledge in society runs through the open-ended processes involved at St. John’s and Socratic learning, Montessori, and Austrian economics. I think there are huge parallels between the social phenomena in the little society of the classroom and a larger society, which drives a great deal of my thinking about education and social systems.

These experiences made me realize that I love teaching. I love ideas and sharing them with people. I love watching people wake up to ideas and build their moral and intellectual habits in the classroom and become more empowered. Maybe educators use that word too much, but I like the empowerment that comes through a liberal education. Self-actualization—I love helping people do that.

Do you feel like you experienced some of that empowerment at St. John’s?

Absolutely! St. John’s delivered everything for me. It was just a wonderful experience in every respect. It liberated me from fear. Every year and course was another level of overcoming a fear of something. You might flip through a book and think “This is crazy! I don’t believe I can understand this.” And then you find out that through dedication and working on it and working with peers, that in the end, it wasn’t so scary. I think St. John’s does a wonderful job of helping students overcome all kinds of fears and insecurities that one might have about learning something. It’s also about becoming really excited and connected to the world: feeling awe-inspired and experiencing that wonder. People at St. John’s keep thinking about things outside the classroom and that’s what I’ve tried to share with my students.

Why did you decide on George Mason University?

George Mason is a great place for Johnnies to do graduate work in economics. GMU takes in many people who didn’t major in economics as undergraduates. So the first year is difficult, but for a motivated Johnnie it’s possible to get up to speed in the GMU program. It’s also one of the least mathematically formalistic programs in the country. It’s more philosophical than most economics programs. And for those interested, the program allows for the study of the history of economic thought, including Smithian Political Economy (the political economy and moral philosophy of Adam Smith and of others like David Hume), economic history, and the application of economics to non-market decision making, public administration, and political science. There’s also an excellent experimental economics program here.

One thing I found entering graduate school was that, with my prior personal reading in the philosophy of the subject, the economics study group I ran at SJC, and my SJC education, I was able to catch up very quickly. Though I didn’t know many of the prerequisite mathematics or economic models, thanks to my SJC education, I was often more prepared than my peers for being able to figure out what I didn’t know and didn’t understand and what I needed to know. I was also often more prepared to make sense of difficult readings and the mathematics.

How do you see economics relating to the liberal arts?

When I was at St. John’s, I called economics “the eighth liberal art.” Economics is a study of various aspects of all social phenomena. It studies the nature of human action (the logic of choice and exchange) and how human interaction becomes coordinated in the face of various material and institutional constraints as if by an invisible hand. It’s mostly about the social systems that emerge from interactions among purposeful human actors, and how these systems come to facilitate or frustrate different kinds of action within or interventions into those systems.

So I would say it’s possible to pursue the study of economics in a liberal way, as a kind of branch of philosophy, in which one is concerned with interesting and important questions for their own sake as well as for the practical consequences they might have. The study of economics can be just as liberal or illiberal as the study of geometry: To what extent is there a timeless nature to human choice and action, independent of any particular culture? And what is the nature of this nature? How do culturally contingent institutions arise and interact with this nature to generate the social world we see? And, of course, how should we try to organize our lives and politics in the face of different answers to these questions?