Marcus Witcher on the Importance of Historical Context and Community

When Dr. Marcus Witcher studied English literature as an undergraduate, he considered the historical context and typically wrote from a historical perspective. During a meeting with an academic adviser in his sophomore year at the University of Central Arkansas, Witcher discussed his interest in graduate school. The advisor suggested that Witcher try out some history classes and consider pursuing history, rather than literature, in graduate school. After that, Witcher began enrolling in history electives, including a class on the French Revolution.

Dr. Marcus Witcher

Going into the class, Witcher believed in government spending and Keynesian economics. However, once he began conducting research for a paper on the economic causes of the revolution, he learned about laissez-faire economics and was surprised to discover that deregulation led to prosperity. “I have this really bad habit of following the evidence where it takes me, and the evidence contradicted my priors,” Witcher says, “So, I had to reevaluate my worldview.”

Once I started taking economics classes, that really crystallized my belief in markets and civil society as a means by which to address most problems in society.

Dr. Marcus Witcher

Witcher also enrolled in economics classes, where he learned about public choice, political economy, and other subjects. He began reading classical liberal scholarship, and was particularly influenced by the writings of F. A. Hayek, Milton Friedman, Adam Smith, and David Hume. By the end of his undergraduate studies, Witcher had switched his major to history and his minor to economics.

As he neared the end of his undergraduate studies, Witcher went to his first IHS program: Summer Seminars. He heard from faculty speakers, including James Stacey Taylor and Josh Hall, and spent hours discussing ideas with the faculty and other students.

Marcus Witcher speaking at IHS in 2019.

I went to this weekend event, and it was the most amazing thing that I had experienced up until that point. It was like the best of my classes magnified by like 10, because every single lecture that was given was opening up new ideas and new possibilities.

Dr. Marcus Witcher

Once he went to graduate school at the University of Alabama, Witcher began studying the history of conservatism more broadly, taking a particular interest in the tension in the conservative movement during Ronald Reagan’s presidency. During his graduate studies, Witcher received multiple IHS grants and fellowships that provided financial and intellectual support.

The Humane Studies Fellowship helped Witcher travel to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, in order to conduct research for his dissertation. “We always used to joke that the only good dissertation is a done dissertation,” Witcher says. Between the Humane Studies Fellowship and additional funding from his university, Witcher was able to complete his dissertation in a short span of time. “I had a lot of primary sources to support my claims, whereas a lot of people were relying on whatever we had in the library or the local collections,” Witcher says.

IHS was critical in enabling me to turn that dissertation into a book in a year or so, which is a pretty quick turnaround.

Dr. Marcus Witcher

Once his dissertation was complete and he had graduated from the University of Alabama, Witcher began turning his dissertation into a book on the Reagan presidency. The Hayek Fund for Scholars helped Witcher conduct archive research at the Clinton Archives in Little Rock and pay for research support at the Hoover Institute in Stanford. “Hayek Fund provides small gifts — but they’re significant gifts — to enable people like me to go to archives,” Witcher says.

The IHS community, along with its emotional, intellectual, and financial support, enabled Witcher to not only finish graduate school but also succeed in future academic endeavors. “I couldn’t imagine being a tenure track professor without the support of IHS,” Witcher says. His connections through IHS enabled Witcher to secure his first job after graduate school and helped position him for success in the future.

I really think the most important thing that IHS provided is the community: the community of scholars, the context, the friendships, the people who care about one another — who helped one another — because the job market is really hard.

Dr. Marcus Witcher
Marcus-Witcher
Marcus Witcher talks about his book, “Getting Right with Reagan: The Struggle for True Conservatism, 1980-2016.”

Witcher’s first job out of graduate school was in the economics department of West Virginia University (WVU), where Josh Hall, another IHS alum, teaches and serves as department chair. Having already connected with Hall at his first IHS Summer Seminar, Witcher reached out to Hall about a potential job at the university.

They had kept in touch so, when Witcher reached out, Hall remembered Witcher and recommended an economic historian role for him at WVU. That job had low teaching requirements, so Witcher was able to spend more time turning his dissertation into his book, “Getting Right with Reagan: The Struggle for True Conservatism, 1980-2016” (2019).

Having that network, that community, enables you… to find some meaningful work, to build your CV, to be the best version of yourself so that, when you do finally go on the job market, you can be successful. So, I think IHS has been extraordinarily critical to my success.

Dr. Marcus Witcher

After Witcher published his first book, he moved on to the University of Central Arkansas and then, a few years later, to Huntingdon College, where he continues exploring and teaching classical liberal ideas in his role as assistant professor of history. One of Witcher’s current projects is an upcoming book titled “Black Liberation in the Marketplace: Hope, Heartbreak, and the Promise of America” (forthcoming, 2022). The book, coauthored with Rachel Ferguson at Concordia University Chicago, will tell stories of how black Americans formed self-help organizations while facing systematic oppression by the government. “I’m extraordinarily passionate about individual liberty, both in the economic and the social sphere,” Witcher says.

Today, Witcher continues attending IHS events, including Academic Research Symposia and Discussion Colloquia. He often hosts IHS Undergraduate Discussion Colloquia on his campus, where he engages with his students on topics ranging from the history of policing to the political thought of Frederick Douglass. Witcher says that, as a faculty member and IHS alum, it feels rewarding to pass the IHS experience down to his students through Discussion Colloquia. “The conversations in these one-day seminars with IHS are absolutely wonderful,” Witcher says. “And I can’t tell you how many of the students have come up to me afterwards and said, ‘Dr. Witcher, what are we doing next semester?’”

The Institute for Humane Studies is celebrating its 60th anniversary in 2021. For more spotlights on scholars, faculty partners, video interviews, photo galleries, and in-depth conversations on classical liberal ideas, visit TheIHS.org/60.

60 Years Advancing the Ideas of the Good Society

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