Sunday, October 09, 2011

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.


At 4:54 PM, October 09, 2011, Anonymous Allan Walstad said...

In my experience, writing about what matters to you is key. On what the English profs assigned, I had a very hard time just thinking of anything to say. Or staying awake.

At 10:05 AM, October 10, 2011, Anonymous RKN said...

As a former student of several writing classes, mostly short fiction, I can confidently say, and I believe most academic instructors would agree, that nobody can teach somebody "how" to write. What is taught in writing classes is craft; what works, what doesn't, plot development, gimmicks to avoid, that sort of thing. When it comes to "getting the bones down", like anything else worthwhile, that takes practice, and a modest dose of talent is a big advantage.

At 12:23 PM, October 10, 2011, Blogger Albert Ling said...

There is an unwarranted prejudice against computer games. They stimulate the mind more than most forms of entertainment, and knowing that a person is a gamer usually indicates they are higher IQ than average.

At 7:28 PM, October 10, 2011, Anonymous Nicholas D. Rosen said...

I read Henry George's Progress and Poverty as a teenager. I know you're not a Georgist (and I am), but that and other books by George, or about his ideas, gave me some of the tools to understand how economic thinking works. Henry George could certainly write like an angel, and set forth his reasoning clearly, even if without the calculus and such that a modern economics Ph.D. would use. I also read other things, notably your late father's columns and Free to Choose.

At 6:56 PM, October 11, 2011, Anonymous Anonymous said...

There's a typo in the title of your post :)

At 1:09 PM, October 12, 2011, Blogger Ari T said...

Apart from basic writing and reading, my mother tongue classes in school were probably the least useful classes.

Only useful thing I learned was punctuation.

At 7:12 PM, October 12, 2011, Anonymous Anonymous said...

> I had never taken an economics course for credit, and teaching things is a good way of learning them.

Makes you proud, isn't it - sure gotten your students their money's worth.


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