Rob L. Bradley Jr. ('73)

Part II: Teaching Interim Term (2006–2010)

“Remember: once Kinkaid fixes the problem of intellectual diversity—and I think that means having an upper-level teacher who is conversant in, and sympathetic to, the limited government worldview—then there will be no supply and demand for what I am now doing. I have other things to do, and Kinkaid has other things to do. Let’s get this thing in the real-view mirror. It is really what we all want.”

Q.   How did you come to teach during Kinkaid’s interim term?

A.   A trustee of Kinkaid was in a group of conservative/libertarian friends who met for lunch to discuss having Houston educational events. Discussion came up about the political bias in education, including at Kinkaid, where a number of us attended. And this was well before the Kinkaid controversy of late 2009.

I knew about Interim Term and suggested that I could teach a course to this trustee. I lived close to Kinkaid and could spare the time to introduce the kids to business and economics in a way that was both provocative and sympathetic to markets.

It was a natural. Just three weeks, just for the first part of the day. A number of donors to my nonprofit also supported Kinkaid. So the trustee got me an audience with the headmaster and John Germann, and we went from there.

Q.   How did you know political bias was a problem at Kinkaid?

A.   As a parent of two students at Kinkaid, I tried to keep up with their textbooks. On Parent’s night, I saw the bias in the halls and on the class walls. I knew there was nothing taught on the major figures/themes that front And certainly nothing on Ayn Rand whose philosophy is at odds with the egalitarian, redistributionist philosophy that seamed to permeate the upper-school from, as we would learn, some advocacy work by some busy bodies.

Q.   Can you give an example of what you saw?

A.   There was nothing in U.S. history—I remember Germann’s class was spectacularly adorned with stuff like “Don’t Treat on Me” flag from the revolutionary war.

But there was a World History teacher who had a gender discrimination clipping smack dab in the middle of her blackboard. We all looked at it from our chairs one Parents night.

Some brave soul asked her about it, sort of ‘what is it about, why-it-is there’ question. I cannot remember her response, but it was tepid. I passed on a tougher follow-up question. I was not going to raise my hand and elevate my blood pressure to confront this person who might penalize my child (we had name tags on). What I would have said is that there is a peer-reviewed literature about worker pay that points to real factors, not discrimination, to leave a pretty small (and declining) residual.

But something else was memorable. I sat in the back next to her bookcase, which was full of Malthusian environmental-related books. Paul Ehrlich and others describing people pollution with an anti-industrial, anti-progress theme. There was nothing from Julian Simon and the free-market environmentalists challenging, even debunking, the doomsayers.

Q.   Who was the teacher?

A.   She is still there. I will say that she likes to go to Progressive Forum (Houston) events to this day, just checking Kinkaid’s website. Now this is just fine, but I wish she was a scholar to really want to know both sides and why her position, no doubt long and passionately held, might be fallacious, at least in important respects.

And with a lack of intellectual diversity at Kinkaid, there is no teacher holding a different view, which leaves the students stuck. What a missed opportunity for true debate and learning … and an expensive one for parents.

Q.   What was your first interim term class, back in 2006?

A.   I taught about the rise and fall of Enron. It was still in the news a lot. Enron was and is a case study of so many things: slippery slopes, arrogance, pretending rather than confronting.

It was also about government in business and business in government where a lot of unintended consequences came into play. I was writing a book in this area, so it was fun to share the common narrative—that greedy capitalism failed—versus my view that the mixed economy created a lot of bad incentives to allow, to use a Hayekian term, “the worst to get on top.”

Q.   And you worked there for 16 years and were Ken Lay’s speechwriter?

A.   Right, I was very close to the situation. So I had some credibility and could tell some stories. I got one of Jeff Skilling’s lawyers to come speak to the class. He was a Kinkaid parent, and I’ll tell you, Kinkaidians jump at the chance to speak to the students. Keep that in mind in regard to the ‘new Kinkaid” coming up with the new administration and physical facility. We need to tap into the alumni better to make learning come alive via the real world.

Q.   What was the central lesson of your first class?

A.   That Enron is part of a wider story—organizational failure. Same causes, many flavors. And little did I know that Kinkaid itself would have an ‘Enron’ moment a few years later. Of course there was no financial reckoning, just mission failure. Kinkaid is a very rich nonprofit, which poses some challenges that for-profits do not have.

Organizational failure …. That’s interesting.

Yes. It happens all over the place where defeat is snatched from the jaws of victory, so to speak.

One of my memories of this first class was some students skipping two days to travel with their parents to see the University of Texas play for the national championship in the Rose Bowl. A small ‘Enron moment” came for USC that changed the game, in my humble opinion. Reggie Bush was on a long run late in the first half and decided to lateral the ball for more yardage. USC was about to break open the game at the time.

Texas ended up recovering a fumble and stopped the bleeding. They stayed close in the second half and ended up winning the game at the very end. Bush’s arrogance, or “failure to overcome success,” to use a term, was what Texas needed to pull the upset.

Q.   What was the verdict from your first year?

A.   The student reviews were positive, and I didn’t have any controversies in or outside the class. A writeup in the Kinkaid alumni magazine highlighted my volunteer effort as a good thing, one of several that Kinkaid-ex’s were doing for the school.

Q.   What came next for Interim Term?

A.   The first year gave me some confidence and grounding. I started studying the textbooks more and talking to the kids about what they were learning—and not learning. I saw lots of things that gave me a feel for what was going on, which was some hard-charged political correctness. Still, I wasn’t probing very hard … I was a guest and was not going to overstep my welcome.

So, and this gets to your question, I decided to start teaching the kids about the “science of liberty,” or the limited government worldview. This is what I basically did for the next four years to fill in a large gap. No one was displeased, and certainly not the trustee who put me into play. In fact, it was mentioned how the dean of faculty had a Obama sign in his yard. My perspective was definitely needed to balance what the kids were otherwise getting.

Q.   Your new course sounds political. Were you biased?

A.   The course was not about political parties. I pretty much could stay away from “conservative” and “liberal” too. But it was a free-market perspective, which I would describe as good economics and good history.

When I presented a view different from the textbook, I said so. And I put it in the context of the power of opposites and how understanding the best arguments on each side was essential to learning. I believe that this approach is superior to teaching a watered-down middle version.

High school debate does just that with its topics, and so should the rest of the curriculum in the social sciences and humanities where there is a lot of open, or at least debatable, knowledge. The only problem is that some topics with a lot of open knowledge are not politically correct, like the human influence on climate change and what, public-policy wise, to do about it.

Q.   Describe your class takeaways.

A.   Well, remember, this is just three weeks, or about 14 sessions of just over one hour each.

The first thing I imparted was the importance of having a worldview in place of intellectual default, or blankness. Having a lens to view the world, whether it is walking into a business and envisioning what the owner is trying to do, interpreting motivations of those around you, or being able to “get outside” of your textbook and teacher words, is learning and understanding in action.

One’s worldview might be reliable or it might be faulty, but at least it is a start from which must be subject to challenge and revision. With the Internet, information costs have fallen so much that the “truth” can be had, importantly. I remember how some of my students would check me in real time in the class, and occasionally challenge me. Bravo!

Q.   What else did you present in class?

A.   I showed some John Stossel videos—they loved that—which took on controversial subjects and presented opposing views. Like “Is America #1.” This show compared Hong Kong, which is basically a huge rock with a harbor, to resource-richer India. The difference was economic freedom driving Hong Kong. I remember Milton Friedman saying in this video, “Indians do well everywhere except in India” because of heavy government bureaucracy. This was back in 1999—India is a bit more liberalized now.

The other thing I taught was the structure of production, the complexity of hundreds if not thousands of stages of economic output that go into many things that we consume. Another Stossel video was good on this too. This dramatic example of undesigned order of the market economy iss a jumping off point for a lot of political economy.

But I never said anything disrespectful about a teacher and a course. Remember, I was the invited guest and was going to err on the side of caution. I think I did that.

Q.   How did the students like your “worldview” course?

A.   The reviews were very positive—maybe unusually so for the school (I never asked or was told). The students did not sense bias, or at least report any of it in their anonymous course evaluations. And it was not like they were ever going to see me again after our three weeks together.

The good reviews got the attention of the Interim Term organizers and Headmaster North, who wrote me a cherished note. Everyone was totally helpful, from John Germann to Tom Wey and Jane Murdock. It was a total pleasure—and privilege. And some of my old students remain in touch with me and are still involved in “science of liberty” projects.

That was very nice of North.

I am a fan of Don North. He was very nice and fair to me, and I have put him through a lot. In retrospect, his problem was that his faculty got out of control. He is still getting up to speed on progressivism vs. libertarianism and where the textbooks and teachers fall short. I hope he has the time and curiosity to pursue it post-Kinkaid. He is obviously a very talented and can do a lot of things.

Q.   Did the students know how you were different, or what they had been missing?

A.   An interesting question. They saw me as different, as real world with business experience and such. And they saw me as closer to one of them, or at least a lot of parents. But what I found out from talking to them—and this is in the pre-reform period remember—is how there were no upper level teachers that were Republicans.

Q.   In what way?

A.   Evidently, there was a Republican club, and the faculty advisor was a lower level language teacher who some student said, was conservative because she was married to a businessman. That was sort of the mentality of how a number of students saw the faculty back then.

I think that with a diverse faculty, where the students knew they could go to an upper level teacher who they knew was progressive or libertarian (and each of these teachers could and should be required to “keep your personal politics out of the classroom”), there would not need to be a Democrat or Conservative or libertarian club.

Q.   Are you still teaching interim term?

A.   No. I was set to teach a course on the brand new Tea Party movement in January 2011 but was uninvited because I published a piece critical of the upper-school Kinkaid faculty, titled “Challenging the Left: The Case for Intellectual Diversity.” It was the extensive (private) letter I wrote to the board of trustees in the wake of the McGee letter in November 2009 with an introduction.

I never planned to publish the letter, and the trustee who got me in to teach Interim Term was very disappointed that I did so. But I felt I had too. Changes were just not happening that I thought we could get out of the controversy.

My last year of teaching at Kinkaid, in January 2010, was several months after the political correctness explosion. I came to the school for those three weeks with a different attitude. I expected to find a culture shift where I could really interact with some senior faculty and be part of the solution.

I tried, but what I found was the status quo, and even flashes of arrogance of the status quo. Now some good things happened, which I will describe in the next interview, but there was just too much amiss, at least on the intellectual diversity side.

It was much later that I figured out what was going on, and to the best of my knowledge, it involves the star faculty member who basically brokered the reforms that left intellectual diversity in the lurch. His “take your personal politics out of the classroom” was, and had proved itself to be, no substitute for intellectual diversity.

Q.   Tell us about what you ere going to teach in January 2011 in what would have been your sixth year of Interim Term?

A.   It was “Tea Parties and the American Dream” with the following description:

The New York Times described the tea party movement as “wild, woolly and chaotic” with “the conviction that the Republicans as much as the Democrats have been an accessory to the growth of spending and deficits, and that the Republican establishment needs to be punished for straying from fiscal rectitude.”

This class will examine the motivations behind America’s second political ‘revolution’ and listen to Tea Partiers themselves—and their critics. We will also watch videos about the American Idea and discuss the general economic and political issues involved—and why many intellectuals are critical of the new insurgency.

Note that I wanted the students to listen to critics of the Tea Party movement. I was going to go out looking for some good voices. But probably not at an Occupy Wall Street camp.

Q.   Are you upset with Kinkaid for uninviting you to teach Interim Term?

A.   No, not at all. I no longer live near the school, and as it turned out, I am reaching more students and the Kinkaid community at large with this website.

Let me again emphasize that I only have praise for the Trustee, John Germann, and Don North. And folks like Tom Wey that make Kinkaid very special. I know many of the same might be my major critics, but I am Kinkaid too, and I am confident that my mission is also the mission of the great majority of parents and what the students want and deserve to have. Unfortunately, my cause requires a lot of explanation and context that I am providing here.

Remember: once Kinkaid fixes the problem of intellectual diversity—and I think that means having an upper-level teacher who is conversant in, and sympathetic to, the limited government worldview—then there will be no supply and demand for what I am now doing. I have other things to do, and Kinkaid has other things to do. Let’s get this thing in the real-view mirror. It is really what we all want.