My Eight Years as an Undergraduate

(Editor’s note: We asked Joseph Bast, president of the Heartland Institute, to share the story of his unusual college experience.)

I was born and raised in Kimberly, Wisconsin, a little paper mill town, sixth of eight kids of a dairy worker and stay-at-home mom. I learned to read and write at a Catholic elementary school, Holy Name of Jesus, and I owe everything to Sister Agatha, who was my teacher from first through fourth grades and gave me my very first book, Gram’s Unrivaled Atlas, 1931 edition. It’s on a table here in my office.

In junior high school and high school I took Latin and joined the debate team . . . and wound up winning the state debate championship two years running. I applied for admission at the University of Chicago because my best friend (and debate partner) had applied, and he was far more worldly than I. At the time I thought it was a public school, and I don’t remember being particularly impressed by its Common Core or focus on the Great Books. (This would have been 1975-6.)

Apparently, the University of Chicago had an “affirmative action” program for kids applying from small high schools at the time, and four years of Latin and being a successful debater apparently lifted my application to the top of the pile. Financial aid must have been generous because I had all of $2,000 or $3,000 in savings, and my dad was earning $18,000. I arrived by Greyhound bus, my first trip ever to Chicago, with a laundry bag of clothes and a pink radio-cassette player I had won for being a good caddy at a local golf course the previous summer.

During my first year at U of C, I fell head-over-heels in love with the Great Books. The late Professor Roger Weiss was chairman of the undergraduate “Political Order and Change” sequence and adopted me and a bunch of other freshmen. I did great academically, took an extra course in the third quarter (economics), got a 3.8 GPA out of 4.0, and then made a fateful decision, to “take a year off to read all the background readings that the professors had recommended.” I got a job as a groundskeeper on campus, then switched to janitorial work when a permanent (union) position opened up there. I spent the best year of my life reading Das Capital and all sorts of other fascinating books on the lawn outside Regenstein Library. That summer I bought a used 60-volume Great Books of Western Civilization from an older couple in Hyde Park and it’s been a constant companion ever since.

The following fall, I met with my guidance counselor to re-enroll, and was told (to my shock and surprise) that having “dropped out,” I lost my scholarships. From that point forward, I would have to work full-time and go to school part-time. I didn’t mind. I worked as a janitor in Regenstein Library, one of the world’s great research libraries, and even better, I was assigned to work in the Special Collections department, where 200-year-old books were mine for the browsing. I starting taking two courses and kept working full-time. I especially liked courses in philosophy and the history of social thought . . . Spinoza, Hobbes, the German sociologist Georg Simmel, Scottish Enlightenment, Utilitarianism, etc.

In 1981 I married Diane, my high school sweetheart from Wisconsin, following her graduation from the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. She went to work at minimum wage for a nonprofit children’s choir in Hyde Park, near campus. In 1984, Scott Hodge (now president of the Tax Foundation) proposed to Dave Padden (founder and host of the Loop Libertarian League) the creation of a libertarian think tank that would focus on issues specific to Chicago and Illinois. Scott then left to follow his girlfriend to college in Minneapolis, I was offered the job of executive director, and I took it.

For the next six months I worked part-time for the newly created Heartland Institute while taking my usual two college courses. Then it was summer break. To graduate, I had one course left to take  . . . an economics course . . . and an “incomplete” to finish in Russian Civilization III, which just required submitting a paper. I never did take that course, and the professor lost the paper that I foolishly slid under his office door and somehow neglected to make a copy of. Heartland soon became a 60-hour-a-week obsession, as it remains to this day. So today am still degree-less, despite having spent nearly nine years on campus, eight of them taking courses.

Looking back, I think I got the greatest education available in America during the 1970s and 1980s. It was at times a total intellectual immersion, so intense that I remember walking into a telephone pole while debating with myself the differences in how Kant, Hegel, and Adam Smith defined human nature. The professors were amazing, the classes small, and there was no hint of political correctness. There really was a set of encyclopedias behind the bar at Jimmy’s, to settle arguments in the smokiest bar and grill in the world.

My sole regret was that I lost touch with my entering class. I was an outsider for the rest of my educational career, and for a young man that can get pretty lonely. I often wore my janitor’s uniform to class just to set myself apart from other students. Each year, the rest of the students got younger and I got older. Each year I came to class more prepared, often reading secondary literature and armed with questions and insights that the other kids didn’t have. Interesting, and a bit of an ego stroke for the kid from a small town and without many friends my age on campus. But I was glad when Heartland came around. Eight years was enough!

My education may have uniquely prepared me for a unique occupation. Being the head of a “think tank” means I am reading constantly, meeting brilliant men and women addressing widely divergent topics, and often helping them express their ideas in clear and plain English. U of C required its students to write many essays back when I was a student there, and that practice (together with Sister Agatha’s patience and encouragement) undoubtedly made me an above-average writer and editor today.

Every now and then, my lack of a college degree comes up. I try to head it off by being forthright about it. For example, I make sure new hires at Heartland know I don’t have a college degree so they aren’t surprised if they learn it from another source. Every now and then a leftist group planning an attack on Heartland will inquire about the absence of any college degree in my online bio, and I’ll explain it to them. I don’t think it’s ever hurt me, but I’ll never know that for sure.

And maybe, next summer, I’ll call my guidance counselor and say, “I’m back—can I finish my degree?”