A Life in Perspectives

Celebrating Andrew J. Coulson

The following is an edited version of the remarks and slides presented by Thomas A. Shull, an adjunct scholar with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, at The Cato Institute’s May 16 celebration of the life of Andrew J. Coulson. Coulson, who died of a brain tumor in February 2016, was a Cato Institute senior fellow at the time of his death and a former senior fellow in education policy at the Mackinac Center. Coulson was also the author of the groundbreaking book “Market Education: The Unknown History.” He was 48 years old at the time of his death.

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My name is Tom Shull. I knew Andrew because I was formerly the senior editor, and then the senior director of research quality, at the Michigan-based Mackinac Center for Public Policy, where Andrew was a senior fellow in education policy.

Andrew asked that this day be celebratory. So in honor of that wish, I dutifully wrote “In celebration” on this slide last week.

Adding the exclamation point — well, that took me a little longer.

But either we’re celebrating or we’re not — and I think we celebrate. Obviously, Andrew suffered a cruel twist of fate in the brain tumor that led to his passing in February, but when you consider his accomplishments, his relationships with other people, the easy joy he exuded in the way he lived, and in particular, I would say, the way he brought his ideas to life, an exclamation point is the only real choice.

And I had to laugh that even now, I was basically debating punctuation with Andrew, posthumously. Under longstanding precedent, the Mackinac Center uses Associated Press Style, and under AP Style, many of the commas and apostrophes Andrew preferred met their death at my pen. Not that I enjoyed that — I’m more a Chicago Manual guy myself — but I did enjoy the amusing verbal fencing matches that ensued.

Well, it wasn’t quite like that — it was all mock outrage — and we had fun with it. In fact, I remember a lot of laughter in my work with him. Studies say you can tell when someone is smiling on the phone, and with Andrew, you sensed that he smiled a lot.

Which might be hard to believe from this picture. I mean, great production values, Cato: He looks serious, important — someone the media should interview and publish. So I get it.

But I kind of like this picture:

For those of you who weren’t friends with Andrew on Facebook, this was his quirky profile picture, and you saw it on all of his Facebook posts and comments.

I thought it was really appropriate for him. It reminded me of the distinction Isaiah Berlin made between foxes and hedgehogs in the history of ideas, drawing on a fragment of a poem by the ancient Greek poet Archilochus. That little epigram goes, roughly:

The fox knows many tricks,
But the hedgehog knows one trick, and it really works.

For Berlin, there were honorable people on both sides of the fox-hedgehog divide. Hedgehogs were those writers and thinkers who saw the world through one powerful lens and built on one major vision — people like Plato or Hegel. Foxes, on the other hand, were those writers and thinkers who saw the world through many lenses and were skeptical of grand visions in pursuing the truth — people like Shakespeare or, for that matter, Berlin himself.

Others have adopted the fox-hedgehog idea, but they often cast the hedgehog as the dogged hero, with the fox portrayed as being too clever by half, coming up with cockamamie ideas.

Well, I suppose we all have our moments. But how is it that I’ve had a lawn tractor all these years and I’ve never once had to do this with it?

Still, foxes have their advantages. There’s statistical evidence, for instance, that their humility and flexibility makes them better political prognosticators than hedgehog-like thinkers. I recall that Andrew was early in recognizing that education tax credits could have political legs.

And I would submit that part of what made Andrew’s work appealing and unique was his nondoctrinaire, multifaceted approach to the education policy questions before him. He didn’t start with an axiom of self-ownership and reason deductively from there — with all due respect to that approach.

Instead, as in this extended essay for the Mackinac Center [see above], he asked people to simply look at, and reflect on, the data on how public schools were actually performing; to focus on children, not institutions; and to consider every possible approach to providing education, not just the system we see immediately before us.

The resulting mix of appeals to evidence, reason and emotion was all the more powerful because it was balanced, measured, even understated. He had a sincerity that eschewed outrage in favor of an unfeigned goodwill. He wasn’t a firebrand; he was more radical than that.

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Sidestepping opportunities for resentment and outrage served him well in other areas, too. I remember when he submitted a regression analysis that I’d invited him to write up as a research paper — and our peer reviewers simply didn’t like it. They found shortcomings, and I reluctantly passed their criticisms on, feeling as if I’d landed him in an unhappy spot.

But Andrew, characteristically, did not become defensive; he just went to work. And some months later, he came back with an analysis that simply left the same peer reviewers dumbstruck, because it was so much better and more sophisticated. We published that study, which concerned optimal school district sizes, with only minor changes.

And from that moment on, he became one of our expert peer reviewers on statistical analysis. It was a neat reversal of fortune — a textbook example, really, of how to reroute a setback into a chance to make yourself stronger.

What could have been a source of awkwardness between Andrew and the Center now became another area where we had fun. His peer review comments were often as amusing as they were insightful. When one of our analysts decided to take a state economic development proposal that was particularly far-fetched and actually run the data for all 50 states, getting a disastrous correlation coefficient for the proponents, Andrew responded with this:

There was one review that wasn’t complimentary, but still fun. We sent him a manuscript that we’d already figured had problems, and Andrew, in the course of dismantling it, wrote this:

We literally laughed out loud. But tellingly, in the course of that review, he made a comment in the margin that really made us stop and think. That remark proved to be the kernel of an idea that led us in a different direction with our research, and it became the basis of the Mackinac Center’s massive biennial report cards on hundreds of schools around the state.

Updates of that study are published to this day. Again, Andrew had helped reroute a setback to a victory.

So I envision a day when one of our great-great-great-great-grandchildren writes a post-mortem called “Public Education: The Unknown History,” in order to ensure that people growing up in a free education marketplace won’t forget the hard lessons humanity learned from government schooling. I hope that in that book, they adopt the same wide-ranging perspectives, the same thoughtful analysis and the same measured restraint to explain how and why humankind turned away from a public education system that had come to regularly fail its poorest and most marginalized students and moved to a market-based approach for education that was better for everyone.

Above all, then, I hope they will follow Andrew’s lead and turn opportunities for unhappiness and resentment over the past into opportunities for humor and hope for the future …

… and to always find a new way to look at things — a new perspective — that helps remove barriers and move the world forward.

That’s certainly a message to celebrate and pass on.

Bravo, Andrew. Well done, my friend.

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Thomas A. Shull is an adjunct scholar with The Mackinac Center for Public Policy. He is the Center’s former senior editor and former senior director of research quality.