Nick Gillespie on Academia, Cultural Deregulation, and Libertarianism

For Nick Gillespie, academia was an absolute joy. It gave him the space to seriously and intensively examine the issues that he most cared about and to learn in ways that would service a career in journalism.

As he was finishing up his Ph.D., Gillespie was hired as an Assistant Editor at Reason, a libertarian magazine that was founded in 1968. His writings brought Reason an unfiltered commentary on culture, infusing its pages with stories celebrating the cultural splashes touching down in areas ranging from television programming to the infinite wonders of cyberspace.  

Nick Gillespie

During the final lap in his graduate program, Gillespie received an IHS fellowship — what was then called the Claude Lambe Fellowship — which smoothed his transition by helping to cover moving expenses to Los Angeles, where Reason’s headquarters is located.

“The IHS fellowship enabled me to maintain an uninterrupted flow of studies, as well as get me to Reason’s headquarters in Los Angeles. IHS allowed me to have a career that’s all about the mind and ideas and about the classical liberal tradition.”

Nick Gillespie

At several IHS summer seminars in the late 1990s and throughout 2000s, Gillespie gave refreshing presentations on the current trends taking place within the cultural arena, reminding students that cultural consumption is now as diverse and manifold as any other good or service on the block. “With the breakdown of certain types of gatekeeper institutions in the late ‘90s,” he says, “the culture had been deregulated.”

The explosion of culture, however, didn’t completely fend off the more defeatist attitudes that continued to creep along as progress was booming. In fact, at these events, Gillespie articulated the many ways in which more cultural choices enhance traditions and values, rather than displacing or shrinking them. What truly became unlocked was not a culture mired in exploitation or depreciating values, but one founded on participation and creativity. 

IHS Northwood open border debate (February 5, 2020)

“What was great about these seminars was to see the students respond to a novel way of talking about individual freedom and innovation — the possibility that when you are free to do what you want and create what you want to consume, what is that world going to look like?”

Nick Gillespie

For example, Gillespie spoke about the emergence of remix culture, where new sounds and videos were being meshed to create completely new products. The ease of access and ability to form your own entertainment, to consume it whenever and however you like, and to share it with countless others was “absolutely electrifying,” he explains.

Throughout his graduate experience, Gillespie cites the advice he was given by mentors and dissertation advisors like the late Mark Shechner, who was an English professor at the University of Buffalo. Gillespie remembers him saying “search for your tribe outside of your department or institution.” This simple note that seeking alternative social circles builds intellectual growth has informed Gillespie for much of his career.

Robert Storey, whom Gillespie met during his graduate studies at Temple University, reminded him that “it’s OK to gravitate sharply towards your passion, but don’t take for granted that it’s the interest of the world.” In other words, share your knowledge with the world and be receptive to what comes back. In the end, intellectual communication is what makes academia a powerful engine of ideas.

Gillespie views graduate school as “boot camp for your brain,” a period in your life when you get to be the author of your own ideas and break into new intellectual spaces. “Graduate school is not really a grind,” he says, “it’s certainty stressful at times, but totally enjoyable.”

Similarly, Gillespie stresses that higher education should not be perceived in strict vocational terms, noting the benefits accrue through methodological and procedural lessons that mark a meaningful education. Graduate school fashions ways of thinking that open new possibilities.  

“The real promise of higher education has to be about critical thinking and about evaluating the past and what is good from it. Putting forward ideas, modifying them, and creating a future based on the best that has been said and thought — that is learning.”

Nick Gillespie

One such methodology that has carried over from Gillespie’s graduate school days and into his work at Reason has been a healthy skepticism, or what Jean-Francois Lyotard labeled as an “incredulity toward metanarratives.” Gillespie believes that the postmodern lens frames much of the world in a way that fits with the classical liberal intuition. He explains that “postmodernism focuses on the limits of knowledge rather than the extent of knowledge.”

For all these reasons, graduate school solidified — and in many cases amplified — Gillespie’s intellectual predisposition toward the libertarian approach. “Graduate school sharpened and deepened my classical liberal intuitions about power and knowledge and treating others equally, without bossing them around,” he says.

On top of this, Gillespie has come to view libertarian as an adjective, a deeply-sowed sentiment that we all have. There is no checklist, no pre-set formula that inducts someone into the halls of classical liberalism — it’s rather a “pre-political sensibility that infuses almost everything we do at life,” he observes.

Thinking back to his IHS experiences, Gillespie notes the many areas of support he received. “IHS provided me with actual material support for a person who did not have it,” he notes. But he also remembers the impact that the books and the people had on him as he was learning more about a tradition that no one else was really acknowledging.

“The IHS community was incredibly smart, modern, cosmopolitical, regional, weird, and wonderful all at the same time. It was like being let into a [hidden] world that exists, but you don’t know it’s there. That sense of belonging to a broader tradition that started before you — and that you can help build and pass onto someone else — was amazing.”

Nick Gillespie
IHS Northwood open border debate (February 5, 2020)

As he was beginning to identify more with classical liberalism during graduate school, Gillespie was empowered at IHS events to continue learning about this intellectual legacy and exploring new ideas, wherever they happened to lead.

In addition, he was awed by the response that students showed at each IHS program. “To see the reaction of students to a new way of thinking and to a world that maps so incredibly well with the great progress of the past several hundred years gave me a lot of hope,” he says.

Gillespie emphases that there’s a libertarian tradition right in front of us and IHS facilitated his exploration of that tradition. “When I think of IHS,” he reflects, “I think of the comradery and depth. I think of an organization that sincerely mines a tradition that has radically changed the world in a better way.”   

The Institute for Humane Studies is celebrating its 60th anniversary in 2021. For more scholar spotlights, 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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