Archive for the the teaching of economics Category

Just found out I’ll be chairing the annual teaching roundtable at next month’s Economic and Business Society conference in Columbus, Ohio.

It’s not a surprise. I was one of the leaders in adding a teaching session to the conference back in Providence in 2007. And even though other problems kept me from proposing a session myself this year (the same ones that have kept me away from Iterations for some time), as an EBHS trustee, I’ve been a long-time advocate of putting teaching-related content on the program. Last year, in Braga, Portugal, I and others managed to finangle two sessions. I imagine we could have had a second session this year as well (the conference chair, Jason Taylor from Central Michigan, is also a fan of teaching sessions). But I just haven’t had time to assemble conference panels and such.

Or even to prepare a paper of my own. The reality is that it is extremely difficult to find time to do research/write in any significant way during terms. And last summer, I was occupied primarily with getting my mother moved into assisted living and rewriting an economic history that had gone quite badly the previous iteration. Add in recurring bouts of depression and learning in December that I have Type II diabetes, and I just haven’t had time to make proposals or write papers.

But I am looking forward to the trip, for personal reasons and professional ones alike.

First, I just love this conference and its people. I haven’t missed one since first going in 2002. It’s the only academic conference I go to every year anymore. Many years it is the only one I go to.

This is partly because of my evolving interests mean I’m more likely to attend non-academic conferences than academic ones with my limited travel dollars. But it’s also because EBHS offers something I haven’t found in any other organization — a dedication to multi-disciplinary collegiality and scholarship. As far as I know, EBHS is the only organization out there that regularly focuses on bringing lots of economic historians together with lots of business historians.

Oh, you’ll see the occasional economic historian presenting before a business history group, or an occasional business historian doing the same before economic historians, but the dominant world view is always one or the other. Which isn’t bad — it’s just that EBHS then provides a very valuable niche.

And we need that kind of scholarship. We need more people who regularly engage in the extended exchange of ideas and careful listening to people with different ways of doing things. It’s too easy to convince ourselves of the importance of marginal scholarship when we only interact with people who share our discipline’s methods.

And, what is even more important, it seems to me, we need it for our teaching. Teachers whose only contact with “research” comes with those who do the same kind of research are going to be much less likely to interact effectively with students who have learned to value other kinds of methodologies.
We rarely get the top scholars of our fields, much less “big names.” (Unless they’re serving as keynote speakers. Last year we managed Michael Bordo, Li Bozhong, and Patrick O’Brien (oh yes, and the Portuguese Minister of State, Fernando Teixeira dos Santos. This year I’m looking forward to seeing Dick Steckel.) But we get people I consider more important: the people on the ground who teach economics, business, and history at 2nd, 3rd, and 4th tier schools.

People less concerned with living in the penthouses of technical research, but people committed to keeping the foundations of the building filled in with sturdy examples and rooms furnished in ways that visitors (i.e. students) find welcoming and worth buying.

As people know, I have lots of problems with the way higher education is done today, particularly at lower-tier schools like my own. Serious problems. Fundamental disagreements with the way things usually get done. Deep fears about the future of what we do and its usefulness.

But places like EBHS give me confidence to go on.

Not because the people of EHBS are somehow more convinced about my arguments. They aren’t. I expect many of them see my idealism and out-of-the-box ideas as flaky (or as dangerous) just like my Luther colleagues do.

In fact I know they do. Because unlike my Luther colleagues, they have listened and conversed with me both deeply and often over the years.

No, I don’t go to EBHS every year because it’s made up of people who share my philosophical or pedagogical or political bent. It isn’t, and they don’t.

No, I have gone to EBHS every year because it’s made up of people who I know will listen. Who, though they rarely go far outside a particular scholarship or teaching box themselves, they recognize the fundamental importance of deeply listening to those who do.

So if you’re interested, and able to find a way to spend a few days the Hyatt on Capitol Square in Columbus, come over and join us April 14-16. You won’t regret it.

And you don’t have to be on staff somewhere as an economic or business historian. We’ve had accountants, political scientists, and philosophers. I’ve chaired panels with bankers and with bureaucrats. Heck, a couple years ago, I had a panelist from a federal government agency who wrote an outstanding paper on the history of x-ray medicine.

And how often are you going to find me willing to put “federal government” and “outstanding” in the same sentence.


In my last post, I compared being a successful teacher to running a successful conference. Today, I want to discuss the benefits and limits of the analogy.

First, a warning: At just a bit under 5400 words, what follows will be the single longest Iterations post to date. Perhaps ever.

The rules of Iterations haven’t changed. Notwithstanding this particular child of Godzilla, and perhaps one more near the end of summer, Iterations will remain a place for fragmentary exploration. One where posts aim for the short side of 500-1500 words. Indeed, since I’m trying to develop my information-density skills to become followorthy on Twitter before fall term starts, what Iterations will morph to if anything, is shorter and shorter entries.

However, as the Barriers of Faith (formerly titled “Technology and Education”) book project moves into its next phase, I feel compelled to post a full chapter or two. Partly it’s simple vanity: I want to keep people updated on my (clearly cool) ideas. :) But also necessity: BoF will be as radical in rhetorical design as in content. As people encounter the book, they’ll experience not one odd design feature, but three.

And that’s a risky strategy, since if I screw it up, it’ll make listening more expensive. If I want my ideas, including the design for exploring those ideas — to sell, I need to test the costs of listening to them with as many different kinds of reader as possible. Iterations readers by definition being rather diverse, I’m hoping “Letter #3″ below will intrigue several of you enough to volunteer as readers of future piece.

(If you want to be a reader/reviewer, e-mail me at  You won’t get paid in $$. But if you review at least one piece of the book, even just this one, you’ll get a free copy of the book when published (target date: late fall, 2010). And not just a free PDF; I’ll mail an autographed copy of a physical book.)

Second, a bit of preface about that larger design. (If you don’t read prefaces, feel free to skip to “Letter 3” below.) Since I’m only giving one piece here, I’d like to say a bit about the overall design of Barriers to Faith, and how I hope it will work.

Design innovation A: “Discourses.Barriers of Faith is built around four multi-chapter “discourses,” each iterating a different dimension of the larger question of “whence economic higher ed in the 21st century?” Chapters will be short, on the order of 10-12 pages.

“Discourse” is not just a pretentious word for “part” or “section” or even (for those of you who like books from the 18th and 19th centuries) “volume.” Chapters within each discourse here do not merely explore a sub-question of that section’s main question.

They attempt to face the reality that people first engage a “question of importance” come to true conversation on a “shared question” via different methodological, ideological, epistemological, intellectual, moral values, that their mode of discoursing gets converted from “arguing across each other” to “conversing with each other” only insofar as these differing values get exposed and dealt with. True conversation requires shared questions. Just as England and America often appear to be “two nations divided by a common language,” people in a public discourse who appear to be talking about the same question are not. Their different value sets assign different meaning to the same words. Persuasion isn’t possible in such a discourse. Only the sham victories of “getting the last word.”

Each of the four discourses of BofF seeks to expose these hidden barriers to serious conversation, then replace their false commonality with true common ground. They do so through the contrast of perspectives offered by what I call the “alternate universe.” By using perspectives that are clearly “out there” from most readers (e.g. technophiles in discourse II, anarchists and evangelical Christians in discourse IV, and science fiction writers throughout), the reader’s own ways of asking the same questions also get exposed. Listen more to the aliens of C.J. Cherryh or the alternate histories of L.E. Modesitt, Jr., and you hear yourself better as well. You hear when you are asking different questions than your neighbor.

Design innovation B:  “Provocations.“  Aiding exposure are, a half dozen “provocations” situated between each pair of discourses. Each provocation states specific — and very radical –”proposals” for pedagogic innovation. While I would love it if individual teachers followed my lead (I have tested, or will prior to the book’s publication, each provocation with actual students), that’s not my goal in presenting them. None, however, and emphatically, are proposals I expect to get reduced to actual “educational policy” or “curricular reform.” They are only what their name suggests, “provocations” to take public discussion past “the usual suspects” of funding, curriculum change, ideology, etc. Ways to help expose the real reforms needed, the ones that will arise from full engagement in the four discourses.

Borrowing a bit of jargon from one galaxy in the alternate universe, the provocations are not themselves the outside-the-box thinking. They’re a technique for getting real outside-the-box thinking to occur.

Design innovation C:  “Opening letters.“  Discourse plus provocation provides exposure. Yet exposure alone is isn’t enough. It must somehow encourage what Adam Smith called sympathy. Before a discourse will morph into mutually beneficial conversation, into something where “outside the box” ideas actually get traded, one needs a trigger of “fellow feeling” that encourages the discourse participants to see value in building that true common ground.

Which is where the third design innovation comes in. Each of the discourse’s open with a letter written to an “old friend” named Jack. Full sympathy, in my opinion, can come from strangers only if some of us are willing to practice what I call “absurd transparency.” And few things can be as transparent of our true beliefs, both the good ones and the bad ones, as the letters we write to long-time friends. And can I ask others to be sympathetic to my request for their transparency if I am unwilling to be provide my own?

For readers of Christian apologetics, or for fans of Narnia, “Jack” is my homage to the late C.S. Lewis. It was either that or address them to Paul, in honor of the famous ancient correspondent with Rome, Corinth, Galatia, Ephesus, Galatia, Colosse, and Thessalonica. And not even I am hubristic enough to dare the latter.

It’s a conceit, of course. I never met Lewis, who died long before I had heard of either Narnia or Mere Christianity, much less entertained a thought of corresponding. Yet for me he has been the sort of writers I expect all of us compulsive readers “know.” An influencer of my own thought and development as profound as any lifelong, first-name friend. In the manner of his life, in the quality of his thinking Lewis was, in my mind, far more significant than another, more famous, Christian who died on the same day in November, 1963. “Jack” Lewis was a model of how to reconcile Christian faith and intellectual rigor. A model for bridging interpretive worlds.

Were he around to read Barriers of Faith, I expect he’d have some rather strenuous objections. Yet, given that my immediate inspiration was one of his lesser-known gems, the posthumous Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, to who else could I address my own letters?

Readers of Iterations should feel free to quote-with-attribution from “Letter #3” in the usual ways of the blogosphere. I ask, however, that any quotation be accompanied by a link to this page, and that any discussion of the details of Letter #3 note that it has been released into the ether as a “work-in-progress.”

Without any further adieu, then, “Letter #3”:

Letter #3
On Giving Students Too Much Responsibility?

© 2009 Wade E. Shilts. All rights reserved.


Sometimes, I despair.

I mean, if I can’t even get someone as smart as you, someone as open-minded and thoughtful and caring as you are on matters pedagogic, to hear what I’m saying . . . how am I ever going to get the idiots without a clue to listen?

A case in point: your last letter, where you object on several grounds to my teaching-as-conference-programming idea. [Aside to Iterations readers: Immediately preceding this chapter will have been Provocation C, "It's not a class. It's an international conference." Following it will be the other five chapters of Discourse III, "Economics as fellow traveling; Or, education of the commons, by the commons, and for the commons."]

1. It’s unrealistic, you say. At most a good seminar might be able to handle 20 students. Even the smallest conferences have 50 to 150 people. You can’t run a effective seminar with 50.

2. Conferences take a lot of planning, you add. Work up front. How in the world can a teacher going to find the time to do all that before the term starts. It’s months of work, coordinating several people.

3. And students aren’t far enough along in their professional development to know what a good economics or history conference would be. They can’t even write a decent paper yet.

4. And look at all those other things we need to get done in the course of a semester-long class. The content we need to cover. How are we going to get that done via a “conference” format.

5. Oh, and by the way, have you forgotten how bad many conference panels are? We’d be bored stiff if we had to sit through an entire semester of conference panels.

I’m afraid, old friend, that you have missed my point altogether. That you have fallen, again, into the trap of rounding up the usual suspects.

Let’s start with your point about not being able to run a seminar with 50 people in it. Sure. Actually I think your 20 grossly optimistic. Personally, I wouldn’t want more than 10 students in a seminar. Maybe 15 if both “A” students and experienced.

But who said anything about running a seminar? I said “put together a conference.” With the exception of the by-invitation-only annual gathering of the Cliometric Society, I’ve never been to a “conference” that is a seminar. (And much as I think Clio provides the model for professional seminars, I’m not suggesting you run an undergrad Clio. Argh. That’d be a disaster.)

Seriously, Jack, have you never been to a good conference with more than 15 people? Conferences are a different animal than seminars. They do different things. They scale differently.

Have you never been to a conference and come away saying it was worth the trip? (And if not, whyever do you keep going? I mean, I know what a conference trip costs, and I know for a fact that your college doesn’t cover all travel expenses.) Yeah, I know some conferences are rotten — remember Boston? — but there are really good ones, too. Grand Rapids last month, for example.

And who said anything about the teacher doing all the prep? I didn’t say “run a conference.” I said “put together a conference.”

Look, I absolutely agree on conference prep. Lots of stuff has to happen before attendees get to check into posh hotel rooms and order room service. Contracts with hotels, finagling sponsors, finding activities, reviewing proposals, scheduling, checking prices, arranging airport shuttles, etc, etc, etc.

But whatever makes you think that all that stuff has to take place before your class starts? And what makes you think that you have to be the one to do it?

Okay, I’ll confess. I tricked you. I wrote Provocation C as I did because I was pretty sure each “you” I used would be read in the singular. Especially since some were. But the ones about putting together a conference? Go back and read those again. They’re the plural you. As in “you and your students.” Nyah, nyah, nyah. Gotcha.

I know. Unfair. I’m a bastard sometimes, what can I say. How can I sit here, having manipulated you through the ambiguity of my pronouns, and then take you to task?

But, don’t you see, my writing and your reading illustrate the point I’ve been trying to make about just how insidiously the usual suspects work upon us.

After all, as you read those opening sentences of Provocation C, did it even enter your mind to think there might be multiple ways of reading the second sentence?


Or did the interpretive paths hardwired into even your brilliant brain tell you that I was speaking to you, to the same singular teacher implied by “you’re teaching…”? Did you think, at all, whether I might be arguing that the you in the second sentence of the provocation, for example, was the plural you”?

Sure, now that I’ve thrown the possibility out there, you can see the annoying ambiguity in what I wrote. Anyone can. Now.

But earlier? Would the plural you of my audience have noticed? Will most “teacher” readers of the book know me as well as you do? If even someone as close to me as you, Jack, someone who knows what kind of writing smart ass I can be, couldn’t see through to the ambiguity, would the others? I doubt it.

And your own reaction just highlights the huge problem we have if we’re going to get higher ed types past the usual suspects. To get them past, means exposing their “you” as beholden to an evil “them”. None of us have problems showing others to be stuck in a rut — we mastered that skill in graduate school. The problems come when someone points out that we are rutting around the mud like the pigs my uncle used to slop.

I suspect this might be part of why economists on average get poorer course evaluations. In many ways, economics as a discipline is all about highlighting how usual suspects fall short. About how easy it is to miss all the consequences of personal or policy choice. About how so many questions are answered by “It depends…,” or by “On the one hand …., but on the other hand…” All disciplines have practitioners who specialize in debunking, iconoclasts who thrive on piercing the bubbles of received wisdom. But economics in many ways defines itself as debunking. Rounding up the usual suspects and striving to put them out of their misery — it’s not just what a few of us do, it’s what all of us are.

But, you’re right, I am asking you to do a lot of new work. Though not as much work as the “require a walkabout to understand local demand and supply” proposal I suggested earlier. (I’m assuming you failed to object to that idea since you know I borrowed it from John Taylor Gatto, who managed to do it in poorly funded NYC schools with 9th graders.)

But I’m not sure the “conference” idea has to mean more work in the long run. Oh it would require you to say “no” more often to the administrivia that surrounds you. Yes, it would be impossible were you one of our poor untenured or adjunct colleagues who lack significant say over the contents of their syllabi. But why is it that we tenured types find it so much easier to justify saying “no” to our students because of “other obligations” than justifying “no” to the committee babble because of our students?

And yes, coming to your third objection, I’m afraid that the proposal is that radical. Probably more so. Because, yes, I’m saying the class should “put together” the conference. Not you. Those 18-20 year olds.

The conference program won’t be a syllabus you hand out in week 1. It’ll be a collaborative effort that your class struggles to finish before week 10 or 11 of the term. That’s right. The bulk of “your” economic history “course” will be spent coaching your students in putting the program together, in finding people to moderate panels, and in the hundred other tasks that having a good conference requires.

Yes, yes. I know. That just strengthens your point. Our undergraduate students just aren’t ready for that. They’re not deep enough or versed enough in the discipline of thinking about choices and consequences, or in their writing skills, to write a conference-quality paper. Much less serve on the program committee.


But answer me this. Will your usual syllabus make them any more ready? Especially if that syllabus follows the model of the usual texts and the usual major requirements? Seriously.

Think about your objection a bit more. Think about why it is, after they have taken our history course, even our best students are still no more ready to decide which potential speakers are worthy of invitation, which papers are worth hearing. Think about why they’re no more ready to read the tea leaves of resumes and abstracts.

And be clear. They’re not going to be ready. I don’t want the economic history organizations in which I am a member involving undergraduates in the program selection and planning process either. In fact, I’m opposed to most of the “undergraduate research initiatives” that have been springing up in the minds of deans everywhere the last several years. For your reason: they’re not going to be ready. Not even close. At least not in the social sciences.

Yet is our student’s inability to judge well enough to serve on an actual program committee a reason against modeling our classes on conference preparation? Or exactly the opposite?

Judgment only improves by exercise. You can’t “tell” people that Xs are good and Ys are bad and then just expect them to be able to move on and correctly decide whether various Zs encountered in their life-after-your-class are more X-ish or more Y-ish. Until you give them opportunities to make dumb mistakes, are they going to learn to make smart judgments?

Have you ever wondered why, when you have students do an end-of-semester class presentation, so many are awful? Why so many give presentations a half-way diligent tenth grader should be ashamed to give?

Yes, I know. They leave things until the last minute. No matter what you or I say, they put too much off, until they’re long past the time where they can do everything that needs to be done. Sure. Okay. Fine.

But why do they leave it go so long?

Sorry, it isn’t that “they’re lazy” and it isn’t that “all they want to do is drink beer and get laid.” (As you’ll see in the “Genius of Gen Y” chapter I’ll send you soon.) It’s complicated, but a big reason they procrastinate on the projects we assign is because our projects don’t make them feel the necessities of collaboration. And if they don’t feel it, they aren’t going to listen to our rants that they’re procrastinating. Much less heed them.

Want good presentations? Want them to work at their writing and their Powerpoints and the quality of their Q&A? I’m sorry, Jack, but then you need to involve them in a project process that truly makes them hurt with the necessities of collaboration. A process that makes them see their individual tasks of outline, draft, final paper, what have you, all as part of a group activity. As Adam Smith pointed out in Theory of Moral Sentiments, coordination in a system depends on the quality of sympathy or “fellow feeling” by the individuals interacting within that system. Not the empathy of “I feel your pain” that our liberal do-gooder friends are always going on about, but the sympathy of “I feel my pain when you feel yours.”

Think. Have you ever noticed how the truly awful presentations at a conference almost never get made by conference committee members? And if anyone has an excuse for procrastinating on their own papers it would be a member of the committee member who has had to do all that other stuff. Yet, if you go to a paper being presented by a committee member, you’re much less likely to see her reading in a monotone. Or have a dozen boring Powerpoint slides, each with 200 words full of bullet points. Canned graphs from Excel. Fidgeting from the moderator when they run overtime.

Program committee members invest in their conference. Conference organizers don’t just take it personal when people think their own paper bad. Conference organizers take it personal whenever people think any paper is bad.

Oh, they aren’t always great presenters. But they’re not the horrible ones that get us cussing either.

I’m betting that if you do your job as program chair well, so will your students. That you’ll see a pretty substantial improvement in the overall level of end-of-semester presentations.

And more importantly, you’ll get more accomplished toward your real goals for the class.

If we want our students to have skills — writing skills, presentation skills, economic skills, historical skills — they bring to bear in their lives after college, we must involve in the collaborative judgment process from the beginning. Knowing that in their inexperience and their ignorance they are going to judge badly, we must get them judging early and often. If you think what program committees do is important — and your history of continuing conference-going tells me you do — then you need people practicing at doing program committee-type stuff.

Because the need for program-committee skills — the skills of collaborating — is critical. Not because we need our students to grow up and put on academic conferences. (I expect that, no matter how much you and I like them, the world could do without 90% of academic conferences.) But so they choose good professional development conferences. So they better decide what happens at all those industry conventions and trade shows and webinars. And — and this is the really big one — so they exercise better judgment in all those non-conference settings where they are going to have to collaborate and judge each other’s economic or historical claims.

No, I haven’t forgotten your fourth criticism. I was just saving it for last.

Because, to be frank, Jack, and please don’t take this personal, you know I love and respect you, I just don’t care whether your students get most of that content you and the textbook makers and the curriculum committee thinks so bloody important.

Sure, I care about my students’ ability to tell the differences among averages, marginals, and totals. But I could care less if they could manipulate the n-teen cost curves they get inundated in most principles-level courses. Sure, I firmly believe they need to get precise in their “balance sheet” and “national income” thinking. To know how to answer questions of “how big is ‘big’?” But I could care less if they remember the differences between gross national product, gross domestic product, or net national product.

Yes, yes, details matter. That’s my point. What we have to get across is that paying attention to details matters. Not “this detail matters” or “that detail matters”. That’s what my “walkabout” and “conference” ideas are about. Getting past the abstractions. Making them feel and work with the details.

What matters — what determines whether our classes are worth anything — is how our students think after having had our classes. Whether they work better when confronted with new details of “economic issues” or “historical experience” after they have been with us (and with their classmates) for 10 or 12 or 16 weeks. If they think better, we’ve succeeded. If they don’t, we’ve failed. Even if they got the best score on every test and wrote the best term paper we’ve seen in years.

And our usual methods of teaching — our survey courses, our lectures, our term papers, our exams? They’ve failed big time. They were failing long before Gen Y revolutionized the institutions of information and its interpretation and “made our job harder.:

Look no farther than what passes for “economic” discussion these days. I’m not talking about the evils of the Patriot Act or the idiocy of 2 trillion dollar deficits. Those are easy targets. Too easy. I’m talking about the everyday talk of Boomer CEOs, politicos, CNN reporters. Dinner table talk. New York Times editorial talk.

Look at the continued health of mercantilist ideas. I mean, it’s been, what, 235 years since Smith demolished the fallacies and empirical errors of mercantilism? And what economic doctrines still pervade virtually all public discussion? My conservative friends talk about the evils of socialism, my liberal friends talk about the evils of capitalism, and almost none of them realize how much they are captive of stupid, stupid, stupid 17th and 18th century ideas. I swear, sometimes it makes me want to puke.

And just how long have we undergraduate economics curriculum been teaching ideas better than mercantilism? Two generations? Three? Four? Five? Okay, I know, that other economic thinking — the neoclassicals and Keynesians and social democrats and the Chicago School, even Austro-institutionalist-anarchists like me — all of them have flaws, some of them big. But bigger than the idiocies of mercantilism’s zero-sum, it’s-all-about-who-has-power thinking that drives mercantilism.

I mean, it takes what, a couple production possibility curves, a couple stories about trade, and the seeds of anti-mercantilist thinking are planted, right?

Yet what the heck have we been watering and fertilizing with in the rest of our economics classes, if the best “public discourse” that comes from all the alternatives-to-mercantilism seeds we have planted over the last few generations is a nation sending millions of pieces of junk mail whining about NAFTA, a nation whose most educated people choose between the likes of Bush and Obama and Pelosi, between CNN and FoxNews? C’mon. A nation where undergraduate economic education had been doing its job should have laughed Ross Perot and his “giant sucking sound” metaphor off the stage in 1992. Not still have “leaders” from the major political parties trying to out-Perot each other in 2009.

And it isn’t just politics. Look at the corporate world. I’m not talking Enron and Worldcom, or the banks, airlines, or GM. I’m talking about the middle manager at Ordinary Company, Inc., who thinks he’s in a “war” with the competition. The college-educated shop floor worker who thinks the only way to get hire wages for “labor” is to take something away from “management.” The farmer who blames low corn prices on increasing costs of growing corn.

Sorry. You knew you were going to wind me up, didn’t you?

But I get frustrated. I believe in the value of thinking “like an economist.” And there have been hundreds of thousands of economics classes taught on the current model in the last fifty years or so, thousands of economics teachers striving to illustrate the value of the economist’s thinking tools. Yet what gets the public energy up in economics? Three quarters of a century from The General Theory and “educated” America thinks the “new” ideas of Keynes and Roosevelt are workable?

And no I don’t want to debate Keynes with you again. Because that’s not my point. Regardless of whether Keynes was right (your position) or wrong (mine), the fact is that we economics and economic history teachers have for the better parts of three generations been teaching against Keynes. And if we had been doing anything other than a generally abysmal job, people would have either elected the new ideas of Obama decades earlier or have consigned them to the dustbin with the physiocrats, the real bills doctrine, anarchists, and all those other things we teachers have consigned to the dustbin.

I know, I know. I’m asking that a whole lot of trust to put in the hands of 18-20-year-olds. Trust that will with great frequency prove misplaced because, well, because 18-20-year-olds are, more often than not, inexperienced with, and ignorant of, important matters economic and historical.

And I have to admit this scares the heck out of me. (Remember, Jack, I’m the one who, with a bit of bourbon in me, likes to rant about the “utter idiocy” of so many of the ideas of so-called “student-centered” education.)

But we don’t have a choice.

No, I’m not just going off on my “Gen Y is special” thing again.

Yes, I do think Gen Y is special and exciting and willing and able to do things you and I weren’t at their age. And, yes, maybe I’m deluding myself.

But, don’t you see, Jack? If I’m wrong in seeing Gen Y as exceptional, if you’re right, then the case for radical reform of pedagogy of the sort I’m suggesting doesn’t get weaker.

It gets stronger.

A lot stronger. Because the important question isn’t whether they can be trusted at 18 with such responsibility. The question is how they handle that responsibility when they get it at age 22.

Because they will get it. No matter what you and I do, whether we stay with your trickle-down methods, or whether we adopt my radical ones, our students are going get responsibility when they graduate. A lot more than we did.

They’ll insist.

And, more importantly, the global marketplace will insist.

It has to. Paradigm shifts today happens too frequently, too fast, for a small core of masters and “leaders” to handle them all. Tomorrow’s paradigmatic changes will be even faster. A world of paradigm shiftiness, a world of change compression, will work only if we can find a way to enable 50 percent to think the way that liberal arts education has historically enabled 5-10 percent to think.

I’d love it if we were dealing with nothing more than the impatience of youth, than the foolish wisdom of sophomores. If we could do what our elders did. If we could just exert the power of our experience and position. Tell them to wait their turn. To play the game.

But the world of “playing the game” is gone. To quote the Wachowski brothers, “There is no spoon.” Sorry, but there is no one game. We have multiple games, each one changing, and changing faster and faster.

It’s our job, somehow, as teachers of economics and history, not to warn them about the brave new world, but to ready them for it. To help them acquire skills not of transmitting and receiving information, but next order skills of judging and interpreting it. Skills of creating, of collaborating. Skills of practicing all those skills at light speed.

I’d love to be able to say, as my teachers did, “Trust us, because in your youth, you’re not ready. Because we have the knowledge and the experience, and you don’t.” But I can’t. Way too much of that knowledge of mine is going to be outdated by the time they graduate. (If it isn’t already.) What we “know” simply isn’t going to remain worthy of trust long enough. If I ask them to “trust me” that way, I’m not doing my job. They’ll fail.

You and I are personally as safe as anyone in this flat world can be, thanks to the protections of tenure. But our students aren’t. When you and I screw up, they, not us, bear the biggest consequences. We may not agree about who will (or should) finally hold the bag when Social Security finally goes bye-bye, but we ought to agree about who hold the bag if we continue our ineffective economic and historical education.

We must trust our students today, knowing they will sometimes disappoint us. Because if we don’t, they will fail after they leave us. Bank on it.

And when they do, bank on losing a lot more of your retirement savings than you’ve lost in the last few years.

Maybe my “conference” idea is a bad one. But its not a bad one because it precludes us from covering enough content.

Content is just the icing on the economic/historical cake. If we want to ensure our students get the cake — i.e., the skills and judgment we yammer on about when talking about curriculum at faculty retreats, the skills and judgment we keep failing to get across — we’d better start thinking about something other than how much sugar to put in the icing.


p.s. Speaking of icing: About Friday — could we do the first martini at 7:30 this week instead of 7? I’ve a group who wants to talk about a piece of their history project and the only time all can make it is 6:30. And I’m guessing that, with this particular group of overachievers, their “little question or two” will go 40 minutes.


Spent a little bit of time this weekend contemplating the syllabus for what has long been my favorite class to teach.  Economics 130, Luther’s one-semester principles of economics course.  As with all of my courses, I expect to make major changes to the class before returning to the classroom, and so I was spending an hour or so thinking about my mission for the class.

I prefer to call the course, not by its title in the college catalog, but by the name of the book I have been using as long as I have taught it, The Economic Way of Thinking.  Capital letters and all.

When I do so in his hearing, however, my colleague, C. Nicholas Gomersall, will invariably attempt to correct my diction, asking me in his polite Yorkshire way to speak of ways of thinking instead.  Sometimes I have assented, sometimes not.  But, almost always, a little part of me adds something to the effect of “Okay, sure, but mine is the best one.”

Yet beneath Nick’s observation, beneath even my silly intellectual sneers, lies an important point.   A sobering point.  Even a disturbing one.

You, see, Nick is absolutely correct.  There isn’t one economic way of thinking, but several.  In fact more than several.  Not only are there the ways of thinking Nick and I like to compare and contrast, the neoclassical and the Marxist, the Austrian and the Chicago, the Keynesian and the post-Keynesian, the Smithian and the Mercantilist.  There are the Donald Trump and the Bill Gates, the Dubya and the Barack, the Oliver Stone and the Frank Capra.

But enough of my gratuitous allusions and false dichotomies.

Nick’s point is sobering because, as a teacher of economics (and not merely a holder of a particular way of thinking about economics), I have a responsibility to properly account for that intellectual diversity.  And somehow do so when I know that getting across enough of even one way of thinking in a single semester is problematic.

Were my only pedagogic goal to introduce concepts and vocabulary, it wouldn’t be so bad.  But I’ve always been of the opinion that Economics 130 is economics for citizenship.  Economics for those who are to be members of a society, not just atomistic individuals bouncing off each other in a sort of self-absorbed Brownian motion.  Economics that only matters to the extent that it gets used after the student has finished my class and received my grade.

If I have to deal with all those other ways of thinking, how in the world am I going to ensure my students can apply any of them?

That’s the sobering part.

The disturbing part is that a truth lies within my sneer, too.

Oh, not that my way is necessarily the best.  That’s pure hubris.

No, the disturbing bit is that one can put to use any economic way of thinking only to the extent one believes that the way being used is the better one.  I don’t think in terms of opportunity cost because it might be better than the alternative.  I think in terms of opportunity cost because, at my core, I believe that doing so is a better way to think.

And so, if I want to teach my students economics in a way that they will apply it after they leave my classroom, I have to teach them how to figure out which way of thinking is better and which way of thinking is worse.

And that means a lot more than just putting the different ways of thinking on the table.  It means I have to somehow get them to adopt a way of thinking about ways of thinking.  A way that allows them to weigh the benefits and costs of thinking my way or Nick’s way or Oliver Stone’s way or Adam Smith’s way.  A way by which they can better decide which way is better.

I can’t do it in a way where my way of thinking always wins by default.  Even when I think, and think deeply, that it does.  Yet I can’t just say all ways of thinking are equally worthy of belief, either.

Because they never are.

Oh, sure, sometimes one way might be better, and other times another way.  Nothing is always best.

But that’s not the point.  At any given moment, at each particular time when a particular decision must be made, one is going to be better and another one is going to be worse.  If it weren’t so, there’d be no need to choose.  Choices matters only when they are unequal.

Choosing means deciding about better and worse.   And teaching, which is nothing if it is not preparing people for better choosing, means being able to say two things in a believable way, often within minutes of each other:

1. “My way” is not the only worthy way.
2. “My way” is better.

The statements need not be contradictory.  One is a statement of a general truth.  One is a statement of a truth for a particular situation.

But I can guarantee that those listening will often hear the a contradiction.  And, unless the teacher is very, very careful, and maybe even if he is,  a contradiction that greatly damages the teacher’s credibility.

And when that contradiction gets repeated with some frequency, as, I regret to say, it probably will?   Well, it’s no accident that average student evaluations of the teaching quality of economists tend to be lower than the overall average.  And, more unfortunately, it’s no accident that so many graduates of introductory economics classes end up not applying what their economics professors were trying to teach them to apply.

As I said.  Sobering.

And disturbing.


Back in my days of being a callow lad, I was pretty darn good in the accounting classes.  Took two years of it in college and pretty much was at the top of all the classes.  But I quit because, well, to be honest, because I found accounting incredibly boring.

(Generation Y isn’t the first group of young people to be easily bored.  They’re just less willing to put up with it than us oldsters were back then.  You’d never catch a Gen Yer doing something boring for 2 years.)

Of course, I grew up.  And I eventually realized that accounting (or accountants, anyway) weren’t really as boring as I had thought when I was 18.  However, I had discovered some things that I liked a lot more, things like women and history and women and single malt scotch and England and women and Jack Daniels and …well, you get the picture.  And so the skills languished and then atrophied.

Eventually I found myself in a position where I had to pay attention to accounting again.  Namely this Iterative Listening business thing.

Except it was harder than I remembered it being back in 1976.  And while it wasn’t boring, it was a major pain in the ass.  So I did what any self-respecting lazy bastard would do — I procrastinated and ignored and avoided the hard stuff as much as I could.  Avoiding the financial accounting bits of course meant that I ended up going through a lot more money than I thought I had.  Not that frugality has ever been something I’m regularly accused of, but when you’re life plan involves taking a year off from work with no salary followed by a second year sabbatical at half salary, well, that wasn’t really very bright now, was it, Wade.

Fortunately, the laziness on the financial side didn’t really damage things all that much.  For while I could have got by with spending less, almost everything I spent money on provided long-run value.  Even though some of those books and workshops and webware proved not to aid short-run cash flow as expected, they are going to be of substantial help down the line.

In short, I got lucky.  Money’s going to be a bit tighter than it would have had to be, and the paranoid part of me says I may have increased the odds of triggering IRS nosiness down the line, but by and large the financials from 2008 are okay, and 2009 should be better.

Where my accounting avoidance screwed me up, however, was not with financial accounting, but cost accounting.

There’s no small irony here, since it is in cost accounting that the accounting and economic mindsets are most compatible.  Financial accountants count historical costs; cost accountants (also known as managerial accountants) count opportunity costs.  Or as an economist acquaintance of mine once sneered, cost accountants are smarter; they listen to economists.  So where I screwed up was in not listening to what I teach.  Good grief.

Here’s the story.  (Or, if you will, my excuse.)  Call it “what I learned while redoing my business plan.”

In the year or three leading up to beginning my leave in June 2007, I had grown quite frustrated with the day job.  Not with the subjects I teach, and certainly not with the students, but with the other stuff.  The administrative stuff, the bureaucratic stuff, the political stuff, the political correctness, and so forth and so on.  And, to be honest, I was just real tired, having taught essentially without a break for 2 decades.

So I was looking for something different to do.  Preferably something that would not just cover my bills, but make up for all the years of working for a salary that was less than I was really worth.  Blah, blah, and blah.

So whether it was frustration, greed, self-absorption, or the alignment of planets (and lets not forget the always tempting laziness), I was looking for easy solutions.

/enter gratuitous aside mode

A non sequitur here:  Gen Y’s propensity for believing in easy solutions may be the single greatest barrier to getting them to listen deeply in lots of situations.   They are not the first ones to believe in easy solutions (I remember once thinking that Veblen’s idea of a guaranteed income was a good thing), but unlike earlier generations, they live in a time when easy solutions have an unprecedented ability to prevent success.

/exit gratuitous aside mode

So where was I?  Oh, yes, looking for easy solutions.

And because I was looking for easy solutions, I wasn’t careful enough about counting opportunity cost.

Opportunity cost is, to mind, the single most important idea in economics.  And, by inference, the single most important idea applied in cost accounting.

But while it is easy to memorize the term’s definition (“the opportunity cost of any future action is the value of the next best opportunity foregone as a result of that action”), putting that term to use can be anything but.   For one, you have to identify that “next best opportunity.” And for another, you have to make a value judgment.  Opportunity cost isn’t an objective thing.  Sorry.  It’s a value judgment, all the way down.

It’s “what is my time worth?”   And, apart from the obvious — it’s worth more than zero, since I’ve got someone who’s willing to pay me for it; and it’s worth less than $20 million dollars a year, since no one is willing to pay me that much — it’s really, really hard to determine.

Now I’m a believer in the argument of Adam Smith and his successors that markets coordinate individual values.  That money prices, more or less, give a fairly good estimate of the value of most things.  Or at least a better estimate than you are likely to get from most college professors or U.S. Senators.

But, you see, the thing is that you get those “fairly good” and “better” estimates only if you are really careful in putting the prices together.  How you connect them in your story of supply and demand and of …wait for it … opportunities foregone.

I’ve often thought, usually after getting annoyed by comments from non-departmental colleagues at a faculty meeting, that I’m going to install a mental  “Mute — not worth listening to.” switch installed for anyone who has not taken at least one principles of microeconomics class, and throw the switch whenever they start to say something about the economy.

My resolution rarely lasts long — invariably, later that day I will make my own muddle of things in class or in a discussion with a college and realize that, well, maybe it takes a lot more than one class to be worth listening to on matters economic.

And, as I reflect back on the first 17 months of Iterative Listening’s legal existence, and the 18-36 months that preceded its formation, I realize again just how easy it is to get distracted.  How easy it is to forget the lessons of econ class and cost accounting class.  How easy it is to forget how hard it is to get opportunity cost right when you’re trying to plan the future.

Back in 2005, 2006, 2007, I thought my choices were three:  stay teaching, do the consulting thing, or write copy.  Teaching — well I was tired of that, so that really didn’t look like something I wanted to be counting as my next best choice.  Consulting, well, that had a cool sound to it, but what exactly was I going to consult about other than the stuff I was teaching, and I was tired of that so why count that either.   Especially since it takes a long time to get consulting business built up, even when the economy isn’t in a recession/downturn/plague of locusts.  That left copywriting, and the claims of good copywriters about the six figure careers to be had by anyone with a willingness to work hard and write powerful language.  Claims written, of course, by those with top command over the language and its power to pull on emotions like frustration and fatigue and all those other things.

Claims that need to be, but don’t manage to get, attached to the right opportunities foregone.

Don’t get me wrong.  This isn’t a rip on those who sold me on emphasizing copywriting in the years leading up to, and during, the first six months or so of Iterative Listening’s existence.  It can be a lucrative profession indeed.  And I can’t tell you how much I learned after Bob Bly hired me to write an e-book on how to make money writing copy for small business.  Not just about copywriting, but about marketing in general, about small business, about how to run a small business, and a lot of other things.

And I still believe — emphatically — that if you follow the advice I wrote in that e-book, you will have a very lucrative career as a small business copywriter.  Since I’ve re-entered the business world I’ve adopted as one of my goals to always strive to give 10X value.  That whether it’s a information product I’m considering making, a job I’m offering to do for a consulting or copywriting client, or something for my academic career, the goal is the same.  To have the recipient of that product or that job or that academic task believe he or she has received value at least ten times bigger than what they gave up to get me to do it.  I don’t always make it — no one can always do 10X.  But it’s what I aim for.  And I believe, emphatically, that Copywriting for the Small Business Market exceeded that goal by at least an order of magnitude.

My business today is no longer focused on writing copy for small business.  I will still write copy, and I’m definitely still striving to serve small business, but Iterative Listening is no longer following the specific business model outlined in that book.

But not because I believe there’s no money to be had. Far from it.  I believed then, and I believe now that the revenue potential of that niche (small business copywriting) is much greater than my actual niche (listening consulting and listening information products).  Even if you add my future teaching salaries to the latter.  And especially in the short- and medium-term (i.e., for the length of time my revised business plan covers, namely, from 2009 through 2012),

And my out-of-pocket costs would be substantially lower, too.  One of the reasons copywriting is so attractive to so many people seeking to change careers is that it requires very little out-of-pocket expenditure.

No, I’ve not moved into consultancy because the money is going to be better.  I’ve moved into consultancy because my return, net of my opportunity costs, is going to be higher.  Because the value to me of what I’m receiving this way is greater than the value to me of what I’m giving up.

So what has any of this to do with my rediscovery of cost accounting and my having “screwed things up” by avoiding the accounting hard work before?

Because it reminds me that, in the grand scheme of things, maybe the screw up wasn’t quite as bad after all.

Because while opportunity cost remains this hard thing to apply, while mistakes in its application (or forgetting to apply it at all) are easy to commit, it’s also a forgiving sort of hard idea.

Because when you apply the idea well, you do it by looking forward, not back.  Look at the adjective that modifies “action” in the definition I gave you up above:  “the opportunity cost of any future action is….”  Or, to use the slightly different definition which I prefer, one that places that future-ness into the verb rather than relegating it to an adjective:  “The opportunity cost of any action will be the value of the next best opportunity foregone as a result of that action.”

As I’ve worked the last couple months on redoing my business plan, this time paying much better attention to accounting for opportunity costs, I’ve had to project forward.

And that means I’ve been able to say, “I’m 50, here’s my choices….” To ignore the part of me that wants to dwell on the wrong turns along the way, the wrong turns that took me a bit astray at 48 and 49.  I can still accentuate the real benefits received because of those mistakes, the benefits that are choices — but for my mistakes — wouldn’t be today’s choices.  But I don’t have to worry any more about what has passed.

Doing a new piece of cost accounting prods me to put the past behind (I’m not re-doing an old calculation. I’m new-doing a different one.)

Thinking in terms of opportunity cost reminds me how pointless it is to dwell upon might have beens.   It reminds me there’s no way we can get to the world of what might have been.  It reminds me that there’s no way I can change what’s past.

Thinking in terms of opportunity cost means you are thinking of opportunities foregone.   But doing it right means thinking only of opportunities not yet forgone.   Only of the opportunities you get to choose whether to forego.  You.  Get.  To.  Choose.

And getting to choose is cool.

Economics has a reputation for being “the dismal science.”  Yet when I think of the economists I admire most for the clarity of their thinking — Adam Smith, Paul Heyne, Milton Friedman, Deirdre McCloskey, Ed Kaschins — I don’t see dwellers on the dismal.

I see great optimists.

All are critics of shoddy thinking, to be sure.  Inveterate pointers-out of the “yes, but’s” of economic life, absolutely.  But optimists for all that.  Big ones.

And I see people who feel the idea of opportunity cost in their bones.   Who will still screw things up (though far less seldom than I will, or you will), but who always come back on track.

And enjoy themselves, and the world, immensely as they do.

Opportunity cost.  Idea of Choice for optimists.



In the world of direct mail marketing, someone who can consistently write copy that generates a five percent response rate will soon be making well into six figures.  Think about the fraction of your junk mail that you open, much less bother to respond to the offer included therein, and you see why.   Five percent is huge.

Being able to write that kind of copy is rare.  Not only do you need a command over the language that dwarfs that of the average professor of English, you must be able to identify and pull upon people’s deep emotional triggers.  If you want to hire one of those established high-response copywriters, you’re likely going to have to wait a while before they get to your package.

And positive response does not necessarily mean conversion.  Not all direct mail is designed to sell directly — some is designed primarily to get the prospect to provide contact data and “request more information.”  And even those solicitations seeking immediate sale must deal with returns and cancelled orders decreasing the total.

But 5 percent is usually going to be considered an excellent response.

Yet even a five percent positive response means 19 out of 20 people have a negative one.  19 out of 20 don’t order.  19 out of 20 don’t listen to the message.  And when the product being sold is an innovative one, 19 out of 20 don’t change their lives.

Direct mail can thrive on 1 out of 20.  (Actually, it can thrive on a good deal less.)

Even with increasing postage and printing costs, even having to pay royalties to the copywriter (most of those 5% copywriters are going to demand a royalty on every letter mailed, not just on the one’s that actually get a response), even with all the other costs incident to using the U.S. Snail, the cost of sending junk mail remains pretty cheap.

Take just postage, one of the two biggest costs of any direct mail campaign (the other is printing).  The most expensive per-piece mailing I’ve seen are some of those sent by political fundraisers who get the benefits of “nonprofit” subsidies and the distribution of federal election funds.  Fancy mailing tubes, clear plastic envelopes showing a crisp new dollar inside, enclosing return first class postage.  My mother (the elderly are natural prey for such variations) actually has received solicitations sent by certified mail!

But these are the exception.   The USPS rate for bulk mailing of a letter via standard mail by a for-profit enterprise can be as low as 14.6 cents.

Now, compare direct mail’s world to that of higher education.  The direct mail copywriter’s job is tough — identifying and pulling on deep emotional triggers of the prospect.  Most people aren’t that good at reading others.  But if educators are doing what I claim they should, and striving to aid students in developing understanding (as opposed to just acquiring knowledge), they are trying to change those deep triggers, a much more difficult job.

And, not unsurprisingly, the per-student cost of that educating is far, far larger than the few-dollars-per-item of even the most extravagant direct mail campaign.  And not even the most wasteful of nonprofits, the ones who mail my mother one or more letters almost every day, are will spend per person in a year what it costs to provide a year of college-level education.

Which brings me to the kicker:  Given their difficult task, given the orders-of-magnitude-greater costs of educating, what are higher ed’s response rates?  What would be a good response rate?  What would a bad one?

Each of these proves to be a bit of a trick question, because as far as I can tell, no one knows.  Unlike direct mail, we simply haven’t developed the “metrics” needed.  When it comes to the productivity of education, terms like “response” and “conversion” are little more than (perhaps) useful abstractions.

Consider, for example, the five possible routes we might have for getting the answers needed.  Each of these represents “evidence” that some people look to when trying to evaluate the performance of institutions or teachers.  In practice, each of them is at best pretty bad at actually assessing how institutions or teachers enable understanding.

Method 1:  Look at the bottom line.  Institutions that are doing well are presumptively providing sufficient value to their customers because their customers are paying more than the education costs.  Institutions that run on red ink are not.  Market success is evidence of market value.  As an economist type, I have a good deal of sympathy for such a “revealed preference” argument, but most in higher education — lacking my “bias” toward markets — are going to reject such a claim out of hand.

And in one significant way, they are correct.  Education isn’t just about satisfying current needs.  It isn’t just about providing students (or their parents, or their scholarship granters) with what they want.  It’s about shaping their ways of thinking so their ways of wanting can evolve.  Internet pornographers satisfy wants, but they aren’t particularly good at education are they?

Method 2:  Look at student evaluations.  These are higher ed’s version of the “customer satisfaction survey.  Several months ago I ranted here about the evil surveys inundating our e-mail and popping up on web sites.  Compared to the way in which colleges and universities typically collect information about student satisfaction, however, those emails and pop-ups represent cutting-edge information gathering.  Survey design is very difficult and time consuming — and the faculty committees that design student evaluations simply lack the time (and sometimes the quantitative understanding) to be very good at it.

But even if overnight all student evaluations magically became the epitome of quality survey design, they would still be problematic in measuring the development of “student understanding.”  Understanding isn’t revealed by what people say after an educational experience, it’s revealed by how they think and do in the rest of their life.

Method 3:  Look at alumni giving, especially at the giving of those more distant in time from their graduation.  Alumni have had time to reflect on the value they have received.  If after 5 years or 10 years or 20 they have decided to give, that says something about how valuable they see their education as having been.

Though I’m not sure whether an annual gift at the level of a car payment or two reflects a high or low perception of that value.  And I’m certainly not willing willing to say that the differential rates of alumni giving between Harvard University and the average liberal arts college reflect in any significant way a greater development of student understanding over the years.

And, more importantly, I’m not at all clear on how one goes about connecting levels of alumni giving to claims about what happened years before on the level of individual faculty member working with individual student.  Even if we accept the debatable premise that economic affluence is neatly correlated with greater understanding, how are we to tell that affluent alums “grew” because of their educator’s efforts or despite them?

Method 4:  Look at letters faculty receive from former students.  Every faculty member I know has received this sort of letter.  They’re wonderful to get, and valuable.  They invariably say that your efforts have paid off.  That all the crap you deal with as a teacher is “worth it.”  That some are listening and learning and developing better understanding.

And the responses are generally quite detailed and specific, so one can get some real meaningful feedback on what might have happened inside the writer’s mind as a result of your teaching effort.

Only, this kind of evidence has two problems.   Big ones.

First, every faculty member who has taught for any period of time gets these letters from time to time.  Even the bad ones.  (Indeed, in my experience, some of the teachers who keep the best track of such letters, as in being able to pull them out of their file drawers in bunches as opposed to leaving them as part of general office clutter or tossing them out shortly after receiving them,  are among the worst teachers in the academy.)  And so there is a real problem in correlating the comments with “best teaching practices.”

Second, the rate at which these letters trickle in (over a period of years and decades, not days weeks like the feedback from direct mail packages) is well under 5%.  And we don’t really know how to interpret the 95%.   We don’t know whether the non-writing former students consider us to have been wasters of their time and money, or whether they learned so much that they are simply too busy to write.

Method 5:  Essay exams.  Since teachers are in the business of giving exams, you would think they could design exams that tested understanding as well as knowledge transmission.  But can we?

Yes, we can evaluate the quality of their response to our questions.  (Assuming we can figure out the correct questions to ask, which itself is easier said than done:  questions that truly test “understanding” of the economic way of thinking that can be answered in a take-home essay, much less on a timed exam,  as opposed to ones that test the ability to “think like the professor,” prove very, very difficult to write.  Writing and grading a “List and explain the causes of the Civil War” question is straightforward.  Writing and grading a “Discuss the importance for us of the causes of the Civil War” is a far different matter.

And using an exam to dig deeper still, to evaluate the development of an ability to ask questions? To evaluate the ability to decide whether an economic or historical way of thinking should be applied in a particular case?   Well, many dedicated teachers I’ve talked to about are so skeptical of exams in this regard that they see no point in trying.

Alas, any current methods for measuring the response we ought to be looking for remain rudimentary.  We in the education business will learn a lot if we look at the practices of direct mail marketers, for at this moment in time they have developed sophisticated methods we have barely explored.  Ultimately, however, we need measurement tools that will go far beyond theirs.  Tools that measure responses most marketers, direct mail or otherwise, don’t need to be concerned with.


Which of the following have you heard from your teachers?

1.  The more you learn about this subject, the more you learn you don’t know.

2.   Here’s what you need to know.

If you are a teacher, how many times have you uttered each of these statements in your career?

I’m not criticizing.  I’ve used each many times, and I’ll use them many times more.

However, if you think of the two statements together, they say something about the appropriateness of wearing an “I’m an expert” clothes in the classroom.

While in 20 years of teaching there has been no shortage of occasions where I’ve been able to show students my superior knowledge, there also has been no shortage of occasions when they’ve pointed out that this particular Emperor of Expertise has no clothes.

Now what should be done in such cases is generally agreed upon by all:  “When a student asks a question for which you have no answer,” goes one common (and very good) piece of advice, “Don’t try to hide the fact.  Be up front and admit that you don’t know.”  And I don’t have any problem with that advice.

It seems to me, however, that the real issue is not what you should do after the student asks the question you can’t answer, but what you should do beforehand.  How do you set the intellectual stage for that inevitable question?

And I’m convinced that you set the stage by being highly, even absurdly, transparent in what you are doing and why you are doing it.

There’s a school of thought among educators that says you should start from a position of certainty; and then, as the student masters the general point, you start to add in more complications and uncertain bits.  Thus, for example, the principles of economics class gives the basics of the “pure competition” model first, and then looks at markets that have more and more complications (monopoly, then oligopoly and strategic behavior).  And if the student stays with economics past the principles class, then even more uncertainties are added in the intermediate and advanaced classes.

Well, maybe.  Or maybe not.

You see, an awful lot of those basic ideas only “work” in the student’s perception after they’ve seen the complications and uncertainties dealt with.  There is value in the simplest of stories, but the student is going to incorporate that value in their own economic thinking only after they have been shown why its safe to ignore this or that uncertainty in particular cases.

And if you do the “simple first, then the complication” approach, they may never trust you to go that far along with you.  And they surely aren’t going to buy the “well, you have to wait until the advanced course to see this.  Just trust me,” approach.

Because no matter what you do in that first ten or fifteen weeks of their economics education, they are going to see multiple examples where the “economic experts” don’t have a clue what’s going on.  Multiple examples where the economic experts use the simple solution because they don’t know how to make the more complicated stuff work and still get an answer.

Anyone who has studied economics formally knows that it can be extremely frustrating in application.  If as a teacher I present the material in such a way that suggests it doesn’t have to be, not only am I lying temporarily (another sort of moral dilemma), but I’m setting myself up for failure when, inevitably, my students reach a few of those frustrations.

So I try to avoid the simple answers from day one of every economics class I teach, even though in the short term both students and I prefer them.

And avoiding  simple answers means being upfront about doing so.  And it means admitting, also from day one, where I and the economcs profession don’t have nice and easy (or even agreed-upon) answers.

And, and this is part of where the “absurdly” in “absurdly transparent” comes in, I make clear where I-the-individual (as opposed to I-the-member-of-the-group-known-as-economists) don’t know.  I don’t wait for them to ask questions that reveal where the Shilts Encyclopedia has no entry, even though it probably should.  I volunteer the information up front.

And I reveal a lot more of my personal information than probably is good for me.  To me, the economic way of thinking — all its complications and uncertainties and gaps in understanding — is worth the trouble because it is personal.  It works for me, my oddities, my hopes and dreams, my problems, my prejudices.  And, it seems to me, it’s going to work for my students only if they also make it personal.

And since I know far too little of my student’s personal lives (and I think they want it to stay that way), the best example I know of making it personal is demonstrating how it is personal for me.

Oh, I’ve no doubt that my students think I’m weird in a hundred ways.  And I’ve no doubt that I’ve shared things that they have no interest in, that they would have been far happier never knowing.

But I’m going to keep doing it, because I think it is a big reason that most of those students stay interested in the subject through all the complications, through all the “on the one hand, on the other hand”-ing, through all the places of uncertainty and no good answer.  And they stay with it long enough, to make the “economic way” a bigger part of their thinking processes.

Don’t just be open.

Be a piece of Scotch® Magic™ tape.


For years I’ve used a book called The Economic Way of Thinking as the main text in my introductory economics class. Originally authored by the late Paul Heyne, and now maintained by David Prychitko and Peter Boettke, I am convinced it is remains easily the best principles text out there. (By “easily,” I mean “order of magnitude better” than any of the standard textbooks you are more likely to see in most Economics 101 class.)

But this posting isn’t about that book. It’s about another short essay by Paul Heyne I just got reminded of. One that should be read by anyone with an interest in the economic world or its study.

Here’s the article. By a giant of an economic thinker who 90+ percent of people doing economics PhDs in the last 25 years have probably never heard of.

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