Impact Stories
July 25, 2023 – Liberalism

The principles that drive the Institute for Humane Studies

The principles that drive the Institute for Humane Studies

Charles Koch Foundation Executive Director Ryan Stowers recently sat down with Institute for Humane Studies (IHS) President and CEO Emily Chamlee-Wright to discuss the principles that animate IHS and the scholars the organization supports, how these principles drive human progress, and why openness on campus and in society is necessary to solve the world’s toughest challenges. This article is the first in a three-part series.

STOWERS: What is IHS’ mission and, broadly, how does it achieve that mission?

CHAMLEE-WRIGHT: Our mission is simple: to support the achievement of a society in which all people have an opportunity to genuinely flourish. We pursue this mission by supporting and connecting talented graduate students, scholars, and other intellectuals who share a deep interest in the classical liberal tradition, which we believe provides the ideas and principles that underlie free, open, prosperous, and pluralistic societies.

We directly fund research, but what is distinctive about IHS is that we build an intellectual community that provides an environment in which good ideas get challenged and honed. This environment also allows scholars to pick up insights and apply them in their own work. It also helps build momentum so good ideas can achieve an escape velocity to impact other disciplines, government policy, and the public discourse.

STOWERS: How does IHS’ current direction build on the organization’s past focus?

CHAMLEE-WRIGHT: In one sense, we’re doing exactly what Floyd “Baldy” Harper envisioned in 1961 when he founded IHS: supporting and building an intellectual community of scholars working within the classical liberal tradition. Two things are different now, however. One, the state of the community of scholars interested in these ideas and, two, our other capabilities.

Baldy really was working to preserve a remnant of a community, a few “lonesome souls” as he called them, devoted to classically liberal ideas. Today, these souls are not lonesome. We partner with thousands of intellectuals trained and working in the classical liberal tradition. In fact, we see a fresh stream of talent every year. 

As the size of our community grew, we came to recognize that there was far more opportunity than we could see with the naked eye. There is so much opportunity for ideas to make a positive difference, but to have that impact we need to build bridges across intellectual clusters and across disciplinary and generational silos. So, while we’ve always been in the business of connecting people, today we use bibliometric data network mapping tools to understand where scholars are already connecting and where they’re not. When we identify those gaps, we get the right people in the room to cross pollinate ideas. Here too is where we can leverage our other capabilities, specifically convening and funding, to create bridges across research clusters so ideas get where they need to go. Our strategy today is all about ensuring the ideas that underlie widespread human progress get applied to our most pressing challenges so they can get pressure tested, refined, and shape the course of history. 

STOWERS: Human dignity and individual liberty are two principles that underpin your work. How are these ideas tied?

CHAMLEE-WRIGHT: Recognizing the dignity of all people means we believe all people are dignified equals. Since we work within the classical liberal tradition, we also have a vital commitment to individual liberty. Why? Because if we recognize the dignity of all people, each person must be allowed elbow room to pursue their passions. People need freedom to create their own life and pursue their fullest potential. I could say the same for all the other commitments to which we adhere — the commitment to constitutionally constrained government and the rule of law, for example — all tie back to honoring the fact that humans are all dignified equals.

STOWERS: What are some of the other principles that drive IHS’ work and the work of its scholarly community? 

CHAMLEE-WRIGHT: Intellectual humility certainly is one, and that works on two levels. Without a commitment to intellectual humility, you’re not going to be excited about exposing your ideas to scrutiny. So intellectual humility is absolutely key to scholars being able to do good work.

Second, if you have intellectual humility, you understand there is wisdom in bottom-up processes. Intellectual humility reminds us of the limits of human reason, and of our limited ability to solve problems in a top-down way. Intellectual humility allows us to try new things, to let them fail, and to feel the consequences of that learning because you know that’s where truth comes forth. Those iterative processes, whether they’re happening in the marketplace or within civil society, allow people the freedom to explore and innovate.