Teaching free-market ideology

Posted: 24 April 2011 in Uncategorized
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Daniel Klein is at it again.

In a previous study, he advocated teaching economics as a form of indoctrination. Now, he suggests that professors should announce their ideological beliefs in the classroom.

There is courtesy in telling your students your ideological views. It alerts them to watch out for whether you give counter-arguments short shrift. It invites them to think critically about how your ideological sensibilities affect the lesson.

Openness alerts students to the fact that other professors see things differently. I tell students that I think that the minimum-wage law should be abolished, but also that a large portion of economists do not support such a reform. Self-disclosing informs students that economists are heterogeneous. It teaches them a healthy suspicion of those who would pretend otherwise.

Disclosure also clarifies the competition of ideas. They may take you to personify an outlook or philosophy. My students might associate me with the school of Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, or Adam Smith, maybe with television personalities such as John Stossel or Andrew Napolitano. Openness helps them relate the classroom to the wider discourse.

Also, openness invites students to go deeper. Knowing that I am interested in advancing classical liberalism, they more readily approach me about that. This is a natural development in the student-professor relationship.

What Klein fails to understand is that classroom teaching is not about spreading ideology. The classroom is not a bully pulpit or a forum for propaganda. And the students’ focus should not be on guessing a professor’s ideology or theoretical predilections.

The goal of work in the classroom is to encourage critical thinking. In the case of economics, it’s to teach diverse economic perspectives and to teach students how to think about them critically—in terms of their assumptions, where they come from, and what their consequences are.

That’s an approach quite different from instilling an ideology or spreading propaganda, no matter how open Klein or anyone else wants to be about their personal views or allegiances.

  1. Siusaidh says:

    I can see his point since students need to know ‘doctors [of philosophy] differ and patients die’, but with the growing climate of neo-McCarthyism, I guess honesty would likely be career-fatal for those who think differently.

    Having long since been axed myself, I no longer have an ax to grind on the subject, but I do worry for academics of younger generations.

  2. Magpie says:

    As Siusaidh, I find the idea appealing, at least at a superficial level.

    The difficulty (which may or may not be easy to solve) appears when one goes deeper into the mechanics of the course.

    Say, as a student, I answer a test question with my own opinion, based on a theory different from the one the professor spouses and taught in class. What grade do I get? How do we settle an eventual dispute?

    By the way, David, I just read your May 2010 discussion with Daniel Klein. In it Klein asked a question (10 May 2010 at 10:38 pm) about government spending. This question is useful as it illustrates the deeper objection I raised.

    Klein seems to assume the answer to that question is one and obvious. It may look obvious to him (I assume he’s a neo-classical economist/Austrian): goverment distributing checks is evidently, invariably wrong.

    But MMT or Chartalism [*] proponents would consider that under some conditions, something quite similar would be the right policy.

    If I answered as a Chartalist, would he consider my answer right?

    [*] See for instance: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chartalism

    • Siusaidh says:


      When I was professing Caribbean and world history, I used to emphasize to students that I respected a well-argued essay against my views more than a poorly thought-out one that agreed (or tried to agree! which produced some strange effects) with me. Of course, the facts had to be there.



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