Avi Chawla (SF22) Publishes Article with the Liberty Fund on Adam Smith, Based on His Senior Essay

October 17, 2022 | By Aayush Thapa (SF22)

Avi Chawla (SF22)

All St. John’s juniors grapple seriously with the original and framing questions of economics by reading Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations. But some Johnnies are so affected by this small but significant part of the Program that they turn to it for their senior essays, engaging with tough and pertinent questions about economics.

One such recent graduate, Aviral Chawla (SF22), has had part of his senior essay on Smith published by Liberty Fund’s Adam Smith Works. Chawla, who is currently a teaching assistant at the University of Vermont, says that he is “a huge admirer of the Liberty Fund” and is honored beyond words to have his work be represented in their repertoire.

Chawla’s reading of Adam Smith leans towards the unorthodox. In addition to exploring The Wealth of Nations—as per the St. John’s prescription—he also examines Smith’s oft-neglected work, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, a book on modern moral philosophy. Chawla aims to understand how Smith’s moral philosophy and its ends inform his economics, and vice versa. “Smith offers his conception of ‘sympathy’ and recommends education of the lower classes as a way to bridge the gaps between people,” Chawla writes in his paper.

Chawla resists the univocal treatment of a subject demanded by the narrow limits of its field, which posits that economics should only treat goods and peoples as commodities and labor. Smith’s moral philosophy acts as a sort of framework in forming his economic principles, for instance, that sound economics should aim at equality and prosperity for all. From Chawla’s point of view, the two domains—the economic and the moral—belong together.

As a University of Vermont graduate student in data science and complex systems, Chawla says he continues to see and explore connections between seemingly disparate domains, “but in a rigorous and quantitative mode.” Through researching the ethical implications of different computational methods, Chawla has found that the field of complex systems allows for thoughtful inquiry into just about anything. “Both data science and complex systems are concerned with quantifying, modeling, and seeing how different things interact—in non-linear and interesting ways,” he says. In addition to forming connections between disciplines and domains, the field also involves a lot of math and computing.

In that regard, Chawla was helped by his multiple Ariel Internships—in addition to the St. John’s Office of Personal and Professional Development (OPPD). While at the college, he held internships in marketing and finance and worked on projects in data science—thanks to the connections he made through the OPPD to alums working in data and finance. For him, the importance of these experiences cannot be underestimated, since they have served as his training in computing and data analysis. “I am really grateful to the OPPD and especially to Charlie Bergman for helping me not only find these exciting opportunities, but also in taking much care over building my resume, writing cover letters and so on. These were really indispensable while applying for competitive positions where every detail counts,” he says.

“It is not usual for a well-established university to offer a liberal arts student a teaching assistantship in computer science,” Chawla says of the University of Vermont. But having taken advantage of opportunities at St. John’s and being a keen learner, he now finds himself as an assistant for a graduate level-course in computer science, assisting many who do possess traditional computer science degrees.

While the Ariel Internships set him on his way and furthered his interest in data science and complex systems, Chawla credits the St. John’s Program for allowing him to thrive in his current program. “Despite my studies and the assistantship being a lot of work, I don’t feel like I am out of my depth,” he says. “I am able to code, and I am able to do the math—especially with the math. I feel that the methodical and developmental structure of the math program at St. John’s is paying dividends now.”

He also feels comfortable researching computational ethics or engaging in the various subjects treated by data science, and it was his undergraduate education that provided him entry into those domains. Says Chawla, “The philosophy we do at St. John’s means we are at home thinking about questions of ethics and morality.” In addition, the habit of being undaunted surveyors of any given text is especially useful when analysis demands a grasp of multiple subjects in such fields as medicine, history, technology, science, and education, among others.

A further challenge in trying to conduct analyses and advance understanding across many and disparate fields of study goes to the very heart of these domains, Chawla says, namely, in their fundamental principles that are perhaps sometimes uncritically accepted. This is where St. John’s graduates shine. “The way to open up these fields is to ask the right questions that go to the basic assumptions of any field—the bread and butter of Johnnies,” Chawla says. This is, in essence, what seniors are asked to do in writing their senior essays to bring alive their questions and the texts.

Sometimes the static subject matter of an old and respected science can become lively and electric in an instant through the power of intrepid questioning. Whether it’s the connection between economics and ethics (as in Chawla’s senior essay) or that between various domains investigated via computational methods in data analysis, questioning creates a bridge between fields of study and concepts . Chawla therefore remains thankful for his time at the college for inculcating in him an invaluable habit of mind, his questioning attitude. And while he is grading exams and preparing syllabi at the University of Vermont, he believes his “achievements are a strong testimony of St. John’s College and its brand, and the rigorous education it provides to all its students.”