As the managing editor of an academic journal, inhabiting the broader universe of academia, I am continually stunned by how much people know about their given subject of choice. Robert E. Lucas captured some of that feeling in an interview back in 1998, when he was asked about whether it was important for economists to also be competent historians. Lucas replied:
No. It is important that some economists be competent historians, just as it is important that some economists be competent mathematicians, competent sociologists, and so on. But there is neither a need nor a possibility for everyone to be good at everything. Like Stephen Dedalus, none of us will ever be more than a shy guest at the feast of the world’s culture.
(The quotation is from Brian Snowdon and Howard R. Vane, “Transforming macroeconomics:
an interview with Robert E. Lucas Jr.,” Journal of Economic Methodology, 1998, 5:1, 115-146, with the comment on p. 121.(
Of course, Stephen Dedalus is the protagonist in the 1916 James Joyce novel, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Here’s the original “shy guest” comment from Joyce:
The pages of his timeworn Horace never felt cold to the touch even when his own fingers were cold; they were human pages and fifty years before they had been turned by the human fingers of John Duncan Inverarity and by his brother, William Malcolm Inverarity. Yes, those were noble names on the dusky flyleaf and, even for so poor a Latinist as he, the dusky verses were as fragrant as though they had lain all those years in myrtle and lavender and vervain; but yet it wounded him to think that he would never be but a shy guest at the feast of the world’s culture and that the monkish learning, in terms of which he was striving to forge out an esthetic philosophy, was held no higher by the age he lived in than the subtle and curious jargons of heraldry and falconry.
I’ve been Managing Editor here at the Journal of Economic Perspectives for 36 years now. I think I’m good at the job. But I’m still a shy guest at the feast.