Deirdre McCloskey on teaching economics

She writes,

I think economics, like philosophy, cannot be taught to nineteen-year olds. . .A nineteen-year old has intimations of mortality, comes directly from a socialized economy (called a family), and has no feel on his pulse for the tragedies of adult life that economists call scarcity and choice. . .you cannot teach him a philosophical subject. For that he has to be say, twenty-five, or better, forty-five.

Read the whole thing. Pointer from Tyler Cowen. My thoughts:

1. By her definition, I was not a natural economist. (She would say that there is nothing wrong with that.)

2. My own teaching experience is consistent with her view. I do not believe that the undergraduates I taught at George Mason or the high school students for whom I taught AP economics really grasped what I wanted them to grasp.

3. I wish that McCloskey had spelled out more completely what it is that she believes is difficult to teach. I am inclined to believe that she is right, but I cannot be sure without more elaboration on her part.

4. I am inclined to believe that teaching economics in terms of the history of economic thought would be worth attempting. I had a great high school chemistry course in which the teacher started with the discover of the gas laws and then gradually added new theories and experimental findings as they took place chronologically. I wish that it were standard to teach economics that way. Of course, you might reach the end of the first semester and still not have finished Adam Smith–even if you start with him.

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19 Responses to Deirdre McCloskey on teaching economics

  1. John Hall says:

    Econ came easier to me than just about any subject I’ve ever taken, but there’s a lot to economics classes that isn’t “the economic way of thinking”.

  2. BenK says:

    By this token, evolutionary biology, heroic and tragic poetry, and numerous other field should be basically impossible to teach in high school.

    It may be that many fields are impossible to teach well in the public schools of today; but if the evidence is to be believed, [insert snide comment about the three Rs here].
    Possibly, however, if we change the school system to include a little bit more of nature, red in tooth and claw…

    But in fact, I don’t believe what’s being sold by McCloskey about economics. I know a little something about middle school black markets in stolen goods, for example, that suggest the functioning of human needs and emotions among the student population. Despite all attempts, infantilization may not be as far advanced as many would like. That tragedy is still keenly felt. That economics is still relevant.

    Of course, there are people who view this as a bug, not a feature.

    • Handle says:

      By this token, evolutionary biology, heroic and tragic poetry, and numerous other field should be basically impossible to teach in high school.

      There’s definitely some truth to this for most of even the smart students. At least, these days. A lot of that is due to vastly increased segregation of children from the real world of adults – from production, business, serious responsibility, real time fending for ones self without supervision, experiences of nature, agriculture, leadership (as opposed to teacher and parent authority), adult social interactions, child-rearing, opportunities for mechanical tinkering, and even warfare (they called it infantry for a reason!)

      The lack of all of which arrests development and delays certain kinds of mental maturation based on experience and observation and which is necessary for most people to even begin to really grasp certain concepts at a deep level. In the past, it was much more common for even quite young teenagers to have had many direct and intimate life experiences by the time they were cognitively prepared to study and learn at an advanced, adult level. Without that foundation, most instruction is both premature and destined to be fruitless.

  3. Jon says:

    You ought to correct this post. It is Donald, not Deirdre, and “intimations of immortality,” not mortality.

    • John Hall says:

      Donald McCloskey transitioned to Deirdre McCloskey. I suppose when the text was written it was Donald who wrote it, but now prefers to be known as Deirdre and Arnold is respecting that wish.

      • asdf says:

        We are complaining that students can’t deal with reality while calling a mutilated man a “she”.

        • Moo cow says:

          Why do you even care?

          • lliamander says:

            I almost didn’t join in, because I think McCloskey* raises interesting points and I didn’t want to distract from that, or cause undue alienation in others just to make a political jab. Also, asdf is a big man** and can defend himself.

            And yet, I would wager that most people in society genuinely believe one’s sex, in the genetic and morphological sense, truly defines one’s gender in a fundamental and unchangeable way, despite the fact that it has become taboo in polite circles to say so. Of course, people do say it (a lot) but those people are now pretty much by definition jerks.

            So what should the agreeable person do if they feel cognitive dissonance when asked to accept the identity claims of trans-* folk? “Don’t worry about it. Why do you care? Just be nice.” It’s all very anaesthetizing.

            The long-term negative results are twofold. First, polite dissidents never expose their views to scrutiny and build up resentment rather than having the opportunity to find resolution. Second, the only people willing to share their dissent openly are actual jerks, which can greatly reduce the quality of discourse.

            So don’t tell people not to care. I do care. I care about trans people, about treating them with respect. I also care about the truth, or at least saying the truth as I understand it. So tell me, how can I, in your mind, be both compassionate and honest on this issue?

            *See how I side-stepped the issue of names/pronouns there?

            **Asdf, I trust you won’t be offended if I am mistaken on this matter?

          • Moo cow says:

            Illiamander, can’t reply directly to your comment.

            I’ve been around the block a few times…seen some things…done some things. My best friend in college became an obstetrician. He says thongs aren’t quite so black and white on gender. If it was, the Olympic committee would have an easier time of it. I’ll take his word for it.

            Anyway, I don’t know. But I will allow that some people may find what they are looking for in ways I don’t understand.

            People make some pretty horrible comments about others on blogs. It seems to be the way some people operate.

            I read AK because I am not a “libertarian” (whatever that is at the moment), and I appreciate his perspective as different from mine. And some comments like asdf’s there, well, I would feel bad if I let it pass by unchallenged.


          • asdf says:

            lliamander does a good job. The primary issue is truth. Truth should be defended simply because its truth. There are lots of knockoff positive effects to defending truth, but its a value in and of itself.

            As to “why should you care” I would break it down the following ways (keep in mind I’m keeping this short enough to be in a blog post).

            First, it doesn’t appear that transgenderism is an actual thing. Psychologically it often seems to really be “sexual attraction to oneself” (there is a medical term for this I can’t think of right now) . Basically, your such a narcissist you want to fuck yourself. Obviously, mutilating yourself doesn’t fix extreme narcissism.

            This issues was noted pretty well by female psychologists dealing with the issue. Primarily they noticed that all non-sexual aspects of the gender identity someone wanted to convert to interested them. They wanted to know how they would look with breasts in a dress, but not what it would mean to be nurturing (or anything else female related besides appearance).

            Then there are people who are gay and use the surgery because they are confused about being gay. Again, mutilating themselves doesn’t solve any of the issues they have with being gay.

            There are also people, especially young people, that are simply confused and uncomfortable in a young person sort of way. They grow out of it though. The tomboy becomes a normal girl after puberty. One of the battle lines right now is between those that want to transition children and those that think its irresponsible to perform major surgery on the young and confused. You can guess which side the PC left comes down on and the measures they have taken to silence the opposition.

            So with transgenderism it seems we have a procedure which can’t be proven to improve lives, which introduces all new problems with the patient, and results in an incredibly high suicide rate above and beyond the control group that doesn’t elect to have the surgery. This is true no matter how “accepting” people are, and in fact acceptance results in more marginal cases of the surgery which has been proven not to work.

            So purely on a transgender level, it seems to mutilate children and drive people to suicide, so I’m against it.

            But maybe you don’t care about transgender people, its a tiny issue after all. If a few people have to get mutilated and die to satisfy PC, so be it. Small price to pay.

            The problem is transgender acceptance is at heart denial of reality. To continue going through point by point will make this too long, but suffice it to say that denial of reality is linked to big time social and policy failures in our society, many of which I think of massive scale and make me fear for the world my daughter will grow up in.

            McCloskey is at heart an advocate that ideas, not reality, are what matter. I’m a reality guy. I think his philosophy of reality denial is doing terrible things, and his own body is a physical manifestation of his ideology.

            On this last point I’ll be blunt. There are plenty of reasons to be against McCloskey based on statistics, facts, logic, etc. There is also there is an extreme ugliness to his ideology that I feel manifests physically. Not just in him, but in other ways. I feel the same way when I view a globalist ritual like the Gotthard Tunnel Opening:


            It’s almost like the voice of evil is talking to you.



            I can understand, if not agree, with someone not following my logic. But when confronted something that is such an inversion of truth an beauty, to not recoil instinctually, makes one wonder what has happened to that persons soul.

            How can I believe someone who calls a he a she just to fit in and get along without conflict is actually going to triumph over leftism?

  4. Handle says:

    I am inclined to believe that teaching economics in terms of the history of economic thought would be worth attempting.

    My own view is that the right pedagogical approach should depend upon where a topic lies along a spectrum varying from “objective / natural” on one end and “social / artificial” on the other.

    So, for hard sciences, the intellectual history of progress, combined with the accumulation of domain-specific tools and intuitions, is a pretty good approach, so long as one takes Feynman’s approach and warns students early and often not to get too attached to the mental modes of operating withing the classical models and approaches, and to recognize and be wary of “epicycle” kludges, (e.g., for Chemistry, the van der Waals coefficients.)

    At the other end of the spectrum is law, and the best way to teach the law is case by case, explaining the facts of some dispute, the history of how some rule came to be established, the reasoning behind that holding, and the best and strongest criticisms against it: contemporary descents as well as modern appraisals.

    That is, just as Anglo-Saxon common law is adversarial in procedure, it should also be adversarial in pedagogy, always presenting opposing viewpoints alongside any argument.

    And I would advocate “adversarialism” for almost everything outside the hard sciences, especially philosophy, politics, history, sociology, macroeconomics, and indeed, even for the more contentious topics within the hard sciences.

    Those great “Keynes vs. Hayek” music videos perhaps provide a jovial example. Neo-Keynesian mainstream Macro should not be introduces without at least a quick read of some Austrian criticisms and also Specialization and Trade. And, for example, no one should read John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty without also reading James Fitzjames Stephen’s, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, at least.

    One of the great advantages of adversarialism is that it helps to impress upon an observant student a fundamental truth, which is that “triumph” in an academic or ideological dispute in terms of being in the majority or establishing a new popular intellectual fashion or consensus is highly uncorrelated with correctness or just deserts. That’s a very valuable lesson.

  5. Slocum says:

    “I had a great high school chemistry course in which the teacher started with the discover of the gas laws and then gradually added new theories and experimental findings as they took place chronologically.”

    I agree — I think all sciences would be much better taught historically. This would make a fantastic book to assign for a HS Chemistry class:

    • Arnold Kling says:

      I also enjoyed that book immensely.

    • As a once-professional student of science, and always ameture student of history, I must call bollocks.

      Historical truths are *complicated*. Any kind of honest history of a given thing — especially an intellectual discipline will contain twists, turns and other things not so simple. Very few of which actually contribute to an honest understanding of the subject matter of that discipline. No useful pedagogy can descend into such a morass (unless the subject is history). A historical curriculum of scince will tell a redacted history that either tows the party line or descends into incoherence.

      This would be bad, because even did teach students about science, it would actively mislead them about history. Far better is for a science teacher to just explain things (as understood today) using whatever tricks are available. Those tricks might involve faux-historical legends, but they should be tought as fairy tales and not as fact.

      • Slocum says:

        But the twists and turns are the point. The vast majority of students find the periodic table, as a static thing, both boring and unmemorable. They suffer through it all and forget it as quickly as possible once the exams are over. But the stories of how the elements were identified are engaging. Filling in the table is a history of ingeniously solving difficult puzzles. And it’s not controversial — I’m not aware of any ‘party line’. BTW, the usage is ‘toe the line’ (don’t step over it) there’s no towing. Unless you want to go with the joke version: ‘tow the lion’.

  6. Seth says:

    You have to start somewhere.

  7. JK Brown says:

    It would be interesting to see if their is a difference in the ability to grasp economics between the upper middle class 19 yr old of most colleges and the poor 19 yr old who has faced scarcity and choice, although not depredation, during their teen years. A kid, who worked real jobs, and who, perhaps only in atmosphere, was aware of family financial struggles.

  8. Butler T. Reynolds says:

    I think the same could be said of teaching philosophy or any of the humanities.

    This notion that sprinkling every college degree with a handful of courses from the humanities makes a person more well rounded is complete garbage.

    I’m not saying that philosophy, literature, art, music, history, etc are worthless. I’m saying that teaching it to 19 year old students as a requirement for, say, an engineering or business degree is a waste.

  9. Charles W. Abbott says:

    A middle aged or older view of opportunity cost is summarized by

    “Too soon old, too late smart.” The problem of being young is that many people don’t really, really, really feel in their bones the consequential nature of choices. Some people develop it early enough, but many do not.

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