Bohanon: In Defense of Ideas, Discussion, at BSU

October 11, 2016

by Cecil Bohanon, Ph.D.

Recently, a scholar from Liberty Fund, an Indianapolis-based educational foundation, visited Ball State University and gave a lecture entitled “Karl Marx 101” to the student-led Economics Club. Twenty or so students attended. About half of them had read the assigned excerpts from Marx and Engels’ “Communist Manifesto.” Dr. Peter Mentzel provided some biographical details about Karl Marx and outlined three major themes of Marx’s analysis.

First, like Adam Smith and David Ricardo, Marx believed in a labor theory of value. Unlike his intellectual forbears, however, he developed a corollary theory of worker exploitation that informed much of his thinking. Second, Marx argued that the division of labor pigeonholed workers into mind-numbing repetitive task; work loses its “charm” (Marx’s word) and becomes a dehumanizing and soul-drenching part of life under a capitalist mode of production. He called this alienation. Third, Marx believed in scientific socialism. In this view, economies develop in predetermined ways that inevitably lead to socialism that will ultimately end history and class struggle. Many other points were made and developed, but that gives an overview.

After the lecture, there was a lively question-and-answer period. This was followed by a dinner at a local Chinese restaurant — served family style — where we continued the conversation about Marx and other matters. What was clear to all is that Dr. Mentzel was neither trying to promote Marx nor to denigrate him; rather, the point was to understand him.

Did some of the students raise critical question about Marx’s insights? Did some students note that Marx was prescient in certain ways? You bet they did. The discussion was, again, lively. It was not tense. All showed mutual respect for differences of opinion. On the way back to campus one student in my car commented that he really liked Econ Club: “You always learn something.”

In my humble opinion this is what a university education is supposed to be about: students engaging with professors and scholars about ideas in a convivial setting. Indeed, there should be nothing remarkable about any of this, but there is something that some may find surprising: The lecture and discussion are part of a programmatic and collaborative effort between the Department of Economics and the John Schnatter Institute, which has recently been funded by Mr. Schnatter of Papa John’s pizza fame and the Charles Koch Foundation.

There is an organized effort on the part of some both within and outside the Ball State community to reject resources from the Koch Foundation. The claim is that Koch educational support is simply a subterfuge for promoting Koch’s special interest. There is also the suggestion that because the full title of the Ball State Center is The John H. Schnatter Institute for Entrepreneurship and Free Enterprise, its activities will be shallow propaganda in support of free enterprise.

As a matter of disclosure, I have received a number of grants from the Koch Foundation over the last few years to support student activities. The lecture event described above is a much better representation of our work than what our critics’ fear.

To see other examples of the Koch dollars on campus please view the student-produced educational films here and judge for yourself.

This is the vision of the free enterprise educational component of the Schnatter Center. Neither political nor polemic, the Center will examine ideas, look at evidence and encourage thoughtful discussion and reflection.

Cecil Bohanon, Ph.D., is a professor of economics at Ball State University.


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