Charles Camic


On his book Veblen: The Making of an Economist Who Unmade Economics

Cover Interview of June 23, 2021

The wide angle

I came to write Veblen out of years of skepticism about the “outsider thesis.” Added to this was my frustration, at once theoretical and methodological, with the tendency of intellectual historians to elide the schooling of the figure—the thinker, the protagonist—whose ideas they are analyzing.

I have read scores of intellectual biographies. Some simply ignore the protagonist’s schooling; some compress it into a sentence or paragraph. Some—those I myself have found most useful—devote a chapter or two to the ideas of one or two mentors who “influenced” the protagonist before she/he/they began their own careers. Unusual is the intellectual biography that ranges wider and digs deeper into the schooling process.

In some cases, this near-silent treatment is justified. In myriad ways, education occurs in all societies; it is a universal process. But the same cannot be said of “schooling” when we use the term to refer, less amorphously, to blocks of time—hours, days, months, years—allocated specifically to the activities of teaching and learning, whether these activities go on in homes, church basements, apprentice workshops, or the brick buildings called “schools.” The incidence of schooling in this sense rises and falls across different eras and social groups.

Now when the intellectual historian’s protagonist hails from a period or a group where schooling was a rare experience, the historian can hardly be faulted for neglecting schooling. Conversely, I know of no justification for the historian to skip school when the protagonist was schooled for extended periods of time. That, of course, is the case with all of us today. And it was already the case for Thorstein Veblen and a growing number of his (white, male, Protestant) contemporaries, especially those who, like him, came from well-off families and aspired to professional careers—academic careers, in particular.

Yet, one of the first things I noticed when I began research on my book was that Veblen scholars were cut from the same cloth as most other intellectual historians. Their overwhelming tendency was to ignore Veblen’s schooling altogether, even though he was one of the most thoroughly schooled members of his generation. Indeed, he was still a fulltime graduate student at age 35, by which point he was just a few years away from beginning his most famous book.

Among Veblen scholars, I could count exceptions to this tendency on one hand. What was more, even the few scholars who broke from it deemed sufficient abbreviated accounts of the work of a couple of Veblen’s mentors. This method, while preferable to wholesale neglect, precluded considering whether Veblen’s ideas were shaped not merely by his contact with a couple teachers, but by the cumulative impact of his experiences with a phalanx of teachers.

My book takes a different tack. It pries open the black box of Veblen’s schooling using a method that has been surprisingly underutilized by Veblen scholars (and many other intellectual historians). My research goes down into the weeds, combing through Veblen’s academic records, copies of reading lists for the courses he took, and unpublished lecture notes by his teachers. It also digs into neglected contemporaneous printed sources, like the annual “catalogues,” “registers,” and “circulars” of the college and the universities he attended.

Veblen illustrates the value of these underestimated materials for excavating the early lives and schooling experiences of social thinkers prior to the start of their intellectual careers. The book places schooling front and center, which is where I believe it belongs when we study the intellectual development of well-schooled figures like Thorstein Veblen.