Random Thoughts on Education
Part I: Marshall as Textbook
In a recent book review in The New Republic, Robert Solow writes:
"When I first studied economics in 1940, we were not given Marshall to read as a textbook; it would probably have been an improvement if we had."
Although I was not literally given Marshall to read as a textbook, I came pretty close. My first position as an economics professor was at VPI, and while there I ended up, over a period of years, teaching a wide range of courses. It occurred to me later that my doing so might have been, not an accident, but a deliberate policy by James Buchanan, who was the dominant figure in the department. I had never taken an economics course for credit, and teaching things is a good way of learning them.
One of the courses I taught was the history of economic thought, which I taught as economic thought not as history. As I put it later when teaching the same course at UCLA, I wanted the students to imagine that they were graduate students in economics getting ready for their prelim exams, the year was 1776, and The Wealth of Nations was the latest thing in the field.
I did not learn all that much economics from Smith, a brilliant writer and thinker but a somewhat muddled economic theorist. But the other two figures I focused on were David Ricardo and Alfred Marshall, and I learned quite a lot of economics from them. One result is that, to this day, I teach the concept of economic efficiency in terms of Marshall's version rather than the later, more fashionable, and (in my view) inferior approaches associated with Pareto, Hicks and Kaldor.
Part II: How Kids Learn to Write Nowadays
Talking with my younger son on the phone, he mentioned that he was planning to write and web an account of his recent playing of Rome: Total War, a computer game he is fond of—and do it as the work of a later historian describing the rise of whatever empire established itself as victor in the course of the game. His sister, as of a few years ago, spent a good deal of time writing up and webbing battle reports describing events in World of Warcraft. I don't think either of them has gotten into fanfic, the practice of writing stories set in the world of Star Trek, or Harry Potter, or Lord of the Rings, but a lot of other young people have. And quite a lot of the people I know online who write novels, including some who get them published, started out running role playing games.
All of which suggests to me that English classes, in high school and college, play a much smaller role in teaching this generation how to write than their teachers might suppose.