Robert L. Campbell
Q. Tell the Kinkaid community about your current position and professional life.
A. I’m a Professor of Psychology at Clemson University. I’ve been in South Carolina for 20 years. Before Clemson, I worked at the Research Division of IBM for several years. My doctoral degree is in developmental psychology, and my industry experience is in human-computer interaction. I teach courses, mostly to undergraduates, in experimental psychology, infant and child development, cognitive psychology, history of psych, and moral development. I also edit a journal called New Ideas in Psychology.
I’ve been a frank libertarian for most of my adult life, and have been involved from time to time with such groups as The Atlas Society and the Reason and Individual Freedom Institute. I help out my friend Chris Sciabarra at the Journal of Ayn Rand Studies. But I’ve never defined myself as a “movement person.” My research interests are primarily in psychology and in the history of ideas. Secondarily, in the history of music.
Q. Did your academic interest begin back at Kinkaid?
I got a good push from Irvine Royal Academy (the school I attended in Scotland for a year; despite the name, it was not a private institution), which got me going on French and Latin in 7th grade, and kept me going in math. I entered Kinkaid the next year. I owe a lot to Mr. Goddard, Mr. Windsor, Mrs. Park, Mr. Montgomery, Mr. Fisher, and Mr. Semander. And to Mr. Germann, even though we did end up on the opposite side of a few political issues.
I graduated not sure whether I wanted to study biology or psychology. Kinkaid had prepared me for both. It was during my freshman year in college that those afternoon hours in the organic chemistry lab, breathing in all those solvents, made a convincing argument that bench natural science wasn’t for me.
Q. It is reputed that Barry Moss, Kinkaid’s legendary high school principal for so many years, described you as his all-time “best student”? Is that true?
A. A compliment from J. Barry Moss is something I would treasure. But if he said anything to that effect, I wasn’t a witness to it. In fact, I wanted to take his English class, but ended up not being able to, on account of some scheduling conflict. Our closest contact, outside the principal’s office, happened when I was on the debate team, when he took over as coach for a year.
I do remember visiting Kinkaid in the mid 1970s—I was in graduate school—and telling Mr. Moss that I was studying cognitive psychology. “I always knew you would end up doing something esoteric,” was his reaction. (I didn’t take that as a put-down. Mr. Moss was a fan of Alfred North Whitehead, one of the more esoteric philosophers.)
Q. You are a contributor to this website. How did you first get interested in the freedom philosophy, or what some now call the “science of liberty”?
A. Maybe it started in Scotland, where I lived for a year. Some of the offerings on the telly I still remember fondly: The Avengers and Top of the Pops (1965-1966, a good year for both). Less fondly, I recall the speeches and comments from Harold Wilson, the Labour Party Prime Minister. Margaret Thatcher wouldn’t be a household name for another few years, but Britain was getting shabby and down at the heels. And here was the government nationalizing steel mills, when it wasn’t laying miners off from the nationalized coal pits. When my younger brother broke his arm, he was taken to Kilmarnock Infirmary—a National Health Service facility right out of the late 1800s. Whatever our problems in the United States, it didn’t seem that following down the welfare state path, let alone the socialist path, was going to solve them.
The next step was reading Anthem in 10th grade English. Then moving quickly, along with some of my friends at Kinkaid, on to Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead. By the time I graduated, I was a fairly convinced libertarian.
At Harvard, I didn’t run into a lot of libertarian course content. There was one important exception: I had the good fortune to get into Robert Nozick’s political philosophy course the year he was finishing Anarchy, State and Utopia. Required reading included Human Action by Ludwig von Mises (about 75 percent of it, but when you’ve read 675 pages, why stop?) and fair chunks of Murray Rothbard. The rest of my reading about economics, history, or political theory I’ve done on my own.
I should add that I started reading Mises and Rothbard and Friedman early. I didn’t get into Hayek until much later. Which, I must say, was my loss. Every social scientist should know Hayek.
Q. And I believe a number of you free spirits founded an alternative campus paper to The Falcon called The Pigeon?
A. Mike Minns, Gary Wilkerson, and Paul Taylor started The Pigeon. I helped them in running off copies on a Xerox machine and distributing the paper. There’s quick turnover on any high school publication. So next I worked with Keith Losee to put The Pigeon out for a year. Finally I collaborated with Mike Salvador and the late Mike Moncrief on it. The paper had no budget to speak of; we were mighty pleased with ourselves when we upgraded to offset printing.
It would be hard to extract a coherent political philosophy out of the Pigeon. Our tone was definitely anti-Establishment; the quality of our target selection was variable. Kinkaid was a small school; some little jabs and inside jokes would be lost on anyone who wasn’t there then. I do recall a short piece I wrote in 1970, expressing skepticism about the first Earth Day. I think I understand the underlying issues better now, but my sentiments are pretty much the same.
John Cooper, the headmaster, and Mr. Moss deserved a lot of credit for putting up with us. The Pigeon was inevitably an irritant to the school administration. Members of the editorial team made a few, shall we say, office visits concerning something or other that we’d published. On meeting other Houston-area high school students who worked on underground newspapers, we learned that some of our colleagues had been expelled from school. Kinkaid was not that kind of place.
Q. Why is philosophy, particularly individualist philosophy, important to present to Kinkaid students?
A. In some ways, we’ve developed a really strange academic culture in this country. I run into American social scientists that any rural Chinese villager would think, from their lifestyle and their pursuit of career goals, are rampant individualists. Yet they give over a significant fraction of their careers to complaining in print that Americans are too individualistic. Go figure.
Individualism is part of American history and culture. You had better understand it, even if you don’t approve of it. (Just as you had better understand progressivism and collectivism, even if you don’t approve of them.)
And philosophy, when taught as it should be taught, will sharpen your appreciation of just about any point of view, of the presuppositions behind it and the arguments for or against it.
The times we now live in are as turbulent as the 1960s, despite being less flamboyant and (so far; we can only hope this will continue) less violent. The financial sustainability of the welfare state has been brought into question—just look at that national debt clock on Free Kinkaid’s home page. Its defenders seem uninformed about the history of their own leading ideas and less and less sure of their moral foundations. If Kinkaid wants to prepare its students for the world that they are going to face, it should be ramping up their exposure to the main currents in economic and political thought—and to the oppositions among them.
Q. What would you think if a Ph.D. in Philosophy said that Ayn Rand was not a philosopher?
A. I can’t say I would be shocked. Academic philosophy is such a clubby discipline. And Ayn Rand wasn’t an academic. (She wasn’t remotely interested in becoming an academic, nor did she much care what most professors of her time had to say.) But today’s philosophy professors don’t get to decide, all by themselves, who counts as a philosopher. Looking at some folks who are on everyone’s list today, Friedrich Nietzsche and Charles Saunders Peirce had short, unhappy academic careers; David Hume, G. W. F. von Leibniz, and John Stuart Mill never taught at a university. Rand did a spot of metaphysics, a fair amount of epistemology, lots of ethics and political theory, not to mention some aesthetics. Those are the content areas that philosophers think and write about. She was putting forth an updated version of Ancient Greek moral philosophy in the 1950s; academic moral philosophers didn’t start catching up till the 1980s.
Q. What if this Ph.D. said she was a philosopher but had never studied her?
A. No one can study everybody. But Rand can’t be waved off. Her ideas are being discussed more widely in 2012 than was the case during most of her lifetime. What’s more, she wrote clearly and is generally easy to understand. I know from my work at the Journal of Ayn Rand Studies that there are disputes over what she was driving at in some parts of her writing—but the range of variation is narrow. Interpreting Rand is not at all like interpreting Plato or Nietzsche or Wittgenstein. A trained philosopher ought to be able to breeze through her essays. Whether he or she ends up liking them is another matter.
Q. And what if I told you this Ph.D. was teaching high school students.
A. We’re making the case for intellectual diversity, aren’t we? Narrow-minded high school teachers aren’t doing their students any favors. Besides, taking the controversy out of social science topics doesn’t just leach a lot of the substance out of them. It makes them boring.
Q. Wrapping up, what are your hopes for this new website?
A. If some Kinkaid students discover Rand and Mises and Simon and Friedman and Hayek and Buchanan, that will be wonderful. If they ask for these thinkers and their ideas to get some coverage in their classes, so much the better. Kinkaid has always stood for academic excellence. Here is an opportunity for it to increase its stature even further.
Q. Great. You are a very distinguished alumnus. You should be invited to campus to share your educational and professional experience with the faulty and students.
A. If Kinkaid invites me, I’ll be there.