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Q&A: Get to Know John Tomasi, HxA’s Inaugural President

September 14, 2021

The Heterodox Academy team and community will officially welcome John Tomasi on January 1, when he begins his HxA tenure. Tomasi comes to us from Brown University, where he is the Romeo Elton 1843 Professor of Natural Theology, a Professor of Political Science, and the director of the Political Theory Project.

To help HxA’s members and friends get to know the person behind the title, we asked John a few questions:

Q. Your scholarly background is in political philosophy, and you sometimes describe your own research program as ”fusionist.” In what sense are you a fusionist?
A. I began my undergraduate studies in classics but then moved to philosophy by the start of my career. When I moved to Brown from Stanford, I shifted to political science, and have recently become interested in intellectual history. So I suppose I am a fusionist in an interdisciplinary sense. But, in terms of my research contributions, I aspire to fusionism in a more substantive sense too. The book I am best known for, Free Market Fairness, combines moral insights from defenders of economic liberty, such as F.A. Hayek, and advocates of social justice, such as John Rawls. In the book, I develop a hybrid theory of liberal justice, one committed to both limited government and the material betterment of the poor. If you’re interested, you can listen to the short podcast interview I did with Philosophy Bites about Free Market Fairness, or read the Wall Street Journal’s review.

Q. We understand that you are teaching a new seminar this semester called “The University.” Tell us about it.
A. We begin by studying the historical roots of today’s challenges — starting with Frederick Rudolph’s The American College and University: A History and some period classics such as William F. Buckley’s God and Man at Yale and Alan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind, and recent work such as Jonathan Rauch’s Constitution of Knowledge. With that base, we then study issues currently roiling the academy, such as certain Diversity Equity and Inclusion initiatives. The final unit of the course is an in-depth study of Heterodox Academy itself — what HxA currently does, how it is organized, and a preliminary study of the rival change-strategies that lay before it. I’m looking forward to that one.

Q. Is there a book about education that particularly influenced you?
A. There are so many! My freshman year in college I read C.P. Snow’s The Two Cultures, a slim but brilliant volume describing the division between the world-outlook of scientific and humanistic scholars. Looking back, that was probably the book that first got me thinking about the nature of university life and organization.

Q. In a similar vein, is there a book on education that you would recommend to HxA members?
A. I recommend Rudolph’s The American College and University: A History — as mentioned in my seminar on The University — first published way back in 1962. It is useful to learn about previous eras of academic crisis and directional dead-ends. And it is encouraging to learn how, era after era, challenges that seemed insurmountable were eventually overcome. Perhaps future historians will say that about the role played by the members of HxA in the face of the current set of challenges.

Q. You’ve been at Brown for more than 25 years. Reflecting on your time as a professor there and elsewhere, what do you love most about university life?
A. Convocation is my favorite time of year because it is when we welcome freshmen to campus. Every fall, the incoming classes of freshmen, with their sense of wonder and their excitement about the adventure ahead, remind me why the academy exists in the first place. I think HxA members can benefit by keeping those “freshman” values in mind. Curiosity, exploration, and the joy of discovery: these are values that turned many of us towards this profession. Curiosity is a value worth remembering and defending.

Q. When you are not writing or teaching, how do you like to spend your time?
A. My mother was a middle school art teacher, and I started drawing and painting because of her. I’m currently working towards a painting studies certificate at the Rhode Island School of Design, where I take courses on nights and weekends when I have time.

I also love to exercise, and I keep myself interested by learning new sports. I started open water swimming a few years ago and now enjoy that greatly. This fall, my project is to learn how to row a single scull. I began a few weeks ago and learned that sculling boats are super tippy. So far, I’ve probably spent more time swimming the river than rowing. But the ratio is improving.

Q. What’s your favorite novel?
A. Moby Dick. And it’s not even close. 

Q. What else can you tell us about your non-work life?
A. My marriage partner Amy and I both grew up in Vermont. Early in her career, Amy worked in social work, and then for many years taught literature and composition at the Community College of Rhode Island, where she was an adjunct professor. Amy recently returned to full time social work and is now a domestic violence advocate at a center for the homeless in Providence. We have two children, both of whom recently finished college (The New School; and St. John’s College/Brown).

Q. How did you first get involved with HxA?
A. I recently dug up an email message from Jon Haidt dated October 2015, announcing me as one of three new members (Amy Wax and Steven Pinker were the others introduced that day). I’m not sure how many other members there already were. These days, it seems like everyone claims to be a “founding member” of Heterodox Academy. I suppose you can add me to that list.

Q. What, in your opinion, makes HxA distinctive?
A. We are fortunate to have allies working with us in the academy-reform space, but HxA is unique. Rather than fighting against bad things, we focus on building things that are good. Specifically, HxA is the only organization that works directly with professors and students to improve the quality of research and teaching. Also, HxA is not a centralized organization but an emergent one. This organic, bottom-up approach leans into another unique strength: our members. We look to our members to be the primary agents of change and we are always searching out new ways to support and empower those members.

Q. We’re incredibly excited that you will be leading HxA, and we look forward to benefiting from your expertise and scholarship. What draws you to the HxA mission?
A. The mission of HxA is to improve the quality of teaching and research by increasing open inquiry, viewpoint diversity and constructive disagreement. These principles are necessary to the pursuit of knowledge, which is the fundamental purpose of the academy. But there are deeper reasons at work as well. By defending the principle of viewpoint diversity, for example, HxA is standing up for the principle that every person and group in our society, the weak as well as the strong, has a perspective that matters. By insisting that every voice be heard, and by encouraging speakers to elevate their own standards of expression, we express respect for our fellow citizens. The full case for HxA principles is not only scientific: it is moral as well.

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