©Deirdre Nansen McCloskey | COPYRIGHTED MATERIAL

A Trialogue for Teachers: How We Got Here and Where We Are Headed

From The Economic Conversation: A First Textbook by Arjo Klamer, Deirdre McCloskey, and Stephen Ziliak, forthcoming.
Filed under interviews, dialogues, and trialogues

"Madam, we guarantee results — or we return the boy!"
Francis L. Patton (1843-1932), 12th President of Princeton University.


  • How to teach in the aisles
  • "The demand for students" versus "the demand for student development"
  • Sixties protest songs and why McCloskey became an economist
  • "Education as the practice of freedom," student success, and this book

We think the open-handed approach of our book is unusual enough to warrant a brief justification. Who are the authors? How did we get here? Where are we going?

Klamer: For example, it may help to know that we represent three different generations of economics education, and that we each bring a different theoretical and philosophical perspective to the world. Deirdre, you should explain how you turned out to be such a prominent champion of free markets.
McCloskey: I started on the left of politics. A lot of economists have. As a teenager I wanted to help the poor, and took the simplest view of how to do it. Folksong economics, I call it. "You gotta go down and join the union," you know, that kind of stuff. The great American folksingers of the 1960s, Pete Seeger and Joan Baez, were big influences. Reading Steinbeck's novel about the migration of poor farmers from Oklahoma to California, The Grapes of Wrath (1939), made me a socialist.
Ziliak: As you know, I use The Grapes of Wrath in my classes. It's a great aid, raising all the issues, micro and macro, in a gripping story. Steinbeck doesn't resolve the issues the way an economist would, naturally. Then again, I want my students to understand social injustices and what happens to people who are victimized in a market economy characterized by selfishness. Most economics textbooks lack such perspective.
McCloskey: But I've come to learn that folksong economics and socialism don't actually help the poor. Good markets do. And that is a big difference. We both care about injustice but whereas you consider the market economy part of the cause of injustice, I consider it the major part of the solution.
Klamer: When you first told me your story twenty years ago I was startled—from my European social-democrat perspective it seemed strange that a right-wing economist like you actually seemed to care about the poor. And it seemed even stranger that you actually seemed to believe that free markets, of all things, were good for them.
McCloskey: Still do. But as I said, I only very slowly changed my mind. I noticed, for example, what a bad job the American government did at running the war in Vietnam. After I finished my study at Harvard I moved to the University of Chicago where I had countless conversations with free-market thinkers like Milton Friedman. In my research I discovered how well markets had worked over time, what free trade and free enterprise has brought to people all over the world, and how governments often stood in the way of development. They still do, by the way. Of course, the conversations with these free market economists made me see this clearly. So I shed my socialist feathers and became a free market economist.

Arjo Klamer, Unrepentant Keynesian
Deirdre, you have persuaded me that markets work better than I once thought. I became an economist when most of my fellow students were protesting the Vietnam war. We drew conclusions quite different from those of the U.S. establishment-we saw the U.S. as a capitalist country trying to overpower people in poor countries. But I believed in good government. I came to this country in 1977 a passionate Keynesian. Like all Keynesians I continue to see good reasons for governments to intervene, to design and watch over effective rules of the game, and to support people who lose their job, fall ill, or grow old and feeble. We need effective governments to counterbalance the excesses of markets.
Ziliak: I was a student of undergraduate economics in the generation after Arjo, just as you, Deirdre, were in the one before him. When my classmates were campaigning for Reagan I was in the middle of campus protesting U.S. investment in South Africa (the books of Nietzsche, Friedman, and Marx in my backpack). By that time, the early 1980s, a typical department of economics was full of neoclassical economists hostile or indifferent to any talk of social justice and alternative perspectives.
McCloskey: Agreed. So how did those books wind up in your backpack?
Ziliak: I was dissatisfied, and sought enlightenment in philosophy and history departments. In my indignation I more identify now as then with Arjo's position. I might even be more radical than he is in my passion for social justice and equal chances for everyone, men and women, whites and blacks, poor countries and rich countries. For example, I think that Post Keynesians are among the few talking sense about what is just and fair in global finance and stability. Yet I also identify with Deirdre in her emphasis on the issue of freedom. I'm for small government, which is a tension. Governments do a bad job when their programs and rules stifle our freedom to act, to trade, and to determine our lives as we see fit. I saw plenty of that when I worked for the welfare and labor departments. Still, I see value in Amartya Sen's notion of "freedom to achieve": a person is unlikely to vote or save or even complete an education if her market pay is too low to cover housing costs. Sometimes the government needs to give her a boost. I am in other words a "left-libertarian": liberty, dignity, and racial and social justice—such as the abolition of poverty—are my chief values.

When it comes to economics as a profession, I am bothered by the single-minded focus on neoclassical economics and mathematical methods. Economics should not be indoctrination, with students learning only one set of answers and one method for justifying them. Philosophers and physicists don't teach that way, neither do historians; economists shouldn't either. As the three of us illustrate, economists do not speak with one voice. We ask different questions. And we use a number of different methods to answer those questions: Deirdre and I use math, sure, but all three of us draw on methods found in statistics, history, philosophy, literature, rhetoric, and other social and natural sciences. I am committed, therefore, to teach my students the different voices and methods in the conversation of economists. I want them to know Deirdre's position as much as I want them to know the positions of Arjo and myself. They must have the freedom and the tools to make up their own mind.
Klamer: Here we agree, don't we, Deirdre?

Deirdre McCloskey: Free market
feminist and virtue ethicist
Yes. Now we do. But I must admit that I'm responsible for indoctrination into the one voice—a fact I'm not happy about. For twelve years I was the teacher of the basic graduate price-theory course at Chicago, and was for almost six years the director of graduate studies there. The teaching was all about free market economics and the one voice. Since then I've changed my teaching, partly thanks to both of you. This textbook will underscore my change.
Ziliak: Education as the practice of freedom is what it's about for me. In the classroom I lean against what Paulo Freire and bell hooks call the "banking system" of education—a good description of many college courses (Freire 1970; hooks 1994). Students in the banking system are like interest free bank loans. The professor lectures to them, depositing knowledge in the "accounts." Students sit on the deposited knowledge for a while. Then, later on, they get to "spend it" on exams or essays or jobs in an actual bank. If they give back what was loaned out, and maybe even a little more by, let's say, answering a tricky extra-credit question, the transaction is completed satisfactorily. Higher education has been achieved.
Klamer: Have a look at the 2004 Handbook for students of economics at Harvard University, written by the Director of Undergraduate Studies in Economics, as an example of the banking system. The first sentence reads, "Economists believe that a wide variety of social issues can best be understood by using the tools of constrained optimization" (p. 1, Chap. 3, on-line Student Handbook/Economics). So there it is: economics is declared to be a single tool of mathematics—constrained maximization—and not what it really is: a variety of arguments.
Ziliak: It's unfortunate and I believe socially damaging that constrained optimization is considered to be a scientifically, politically, and ethically complete economics-polished and finished. You don't have to be a rhetorician or historian to agree with that. Ronald Coase and Thomas Schelling, for example, agree with us.
McCloskey: I admit I taught in the banking way for decades. It was an easy way to deliver my free market conclusions. I haven't changed my conclusions about the goodness of free markets. But I have changed the way I present them, and I now believe that something more is needed beyond prudence and limited government—such as love and solidarity—to achieve good markets. In my classes a Steinbeck or Dickens, a Marx or Keynes, a Aristotle or Simmel, now gets a fair hearing. Students do a lot more of the talking and I do a lot more listening. We argue. Studying classical rhetoric in the 1980s showed me the ethical limits of having only one story to deliver.
Klamer: That's crucial what you say, Deirdre, and bears repeating: teaching one story, as many economists do, is probably impossible to defend on moral grounds. Therefore we should seek to teach multiple stories.
Ziliak: When it comes to livelihood, economists turn out to be pro government: we protect our own livelihood by levying taxes and embargos on people representing other schools of thought. We need an Emersonian economics, so to speak. Freer markets and freer minds. To build the virtues of independence of thought and of self-reliance in the economic conversation, our students need to know how to make their way around the economic conversation in its broadest sense. The only way to do that is to participate with them in a broad economic conversation.
Klamer: Yes. But we don't argue that mainstream or neoclassical economists created the banking system of education.
Ziliak: One voice, one method is not at all limited to neoclassical economics or to schools in the United States. Galileo complained about it in Italy at the University of Padua in the 17th century. The Brazilian philosopher Paolo Freire found the banking approach to be rife in 20th century South America, and South Korean students come to the U.S. today expecting nothing else. A particular nasty form of the banking system was routine under communism. A Chinese friend of mine from grad school, now a game theorist in San Francisco, is the son of a Chinese economist who taught Adam Smith prior to the so-called Cultural Revolution in the China of the 1960s. During the Revolution the economist—father was paraded down the street with other intellectuals, to be mocked by a crowd before arriving at a labor camp. The exact crime the professors and intellectuals were accused of was painted on heavy wooden boards, one hanging from each of them: "Bourgeois," the signs said.
McCloskey: It makes my skin crawl.
Ziliak: As recently as the 1980s a similar thing happened in Hungary. A professor of philosophy was literally executed by the state. His crime? He told his students about German Idealism, the philosophy of Immanuel Kant. It could happen again.
Klamer: A dialogical or conversational model of teaching does most justice to the idea of economics as argumentation. It certainly beats any of that! But I find that many teachers are afraid to try it.
McCloskey: I was hesitant. I actually learned to teach dialogically from you, Arjo, when we co-taught elementary economics at the University of Iowa in the 1980s. I didn't want to give up control.

Stephen Ziliak: Optimistic left-libertarian
I plunged in to dialogue, nearly blind. I had had some superb lecturers at Indiana University, such as H. Scott Gordon (b. 1924) and the historians of science Richard Westfall and Edward Grant. But at the end of the day, I realized that my arguments hadn't mattered. Essentially no student voices were fundamental to the arguments in play. So as a new professor I thought, "How am I going to break through what the theatre professors call the 'fourth wall'"—the real or implied curtain that separates the audience from the actor on stage? How do I help the students see me as a real human, in dialogue with them?
McCloskey: By the end of a five-course semester monopolized by the banking system, a lot of students begin to think that they have nothing to say.
Klamer: True. I find that an "open" classroom works: getting out in front of the lectern and walking the aisles, engaging the students, stimulating and facilitating student discussion. This is one way to sustain a dialogical classroom, even in a large lecture hall.
McCloskey: At first the movement around the aisles will intimidate students. You have to remember that they come to you in the first year of college used to something like the banking approach. The prof is supposed to be far, far away from them—in more ways than one.
Ziliak: True. So on the first few days of class I go easy. I try to wear softer colors, a pair of Dockers, and a light scent.
McCloskey: You're crazy, Steve! But seriously, walking the aisles and speaking directly with students is highly effective.
Ziliak: Can be. Walking-around classes do not imply chaos, but neither do they guarantee results. For example, some students fall silent on grounds that they "can't keep up with the conversation."
Klamer: Absolutely. I've found that most students need a third voice, a third audience, so to speak, to help keep them on track. I speak with them about philosophers of liberatory education—the great commitment of a John Dewey, for example—so they don't think I'm just one professor making this stuff up.
Ziliak: Me too. For years I've assigned on the first day of class "Building a Teaching Community," a dialogue between bell hooks and a colleague of hers in philosophy (Chapter 10 of hooks' Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom [Routledge, 1994]. She emphasizes to students the need for their daily preparation and personal responsibility. She talks about the importance of students coming into their own voice, and explains why gender, race, and class differences need to be freely but respectfully acknowledged (international students also feel empowered by this). It's the kind of teaching we're talking about here. Later in the term, when they show up unprepared or passive or whatever, hoping I'll do all the talking, we can point to the dialogue and ask, "what would a banking approach suggest we do?" or "how can we turn this moment into a teaching moment?"
Klamer: And then?
Ziliak: And then they grow embarrassed. But trust and mutual respect have been formed by our previous conversations. So by the next day, we're back on track. Witnesses describe my classes as loud, argumentative, and fun, yet rigorous. But I guess a teacher has to be comfortable with all that.
Klamer: Our approach is consistent with what Deirdre and I have been saying about the rhetoric of economics since the 1980s, joined by you, Steve, in the 1990s. Rhetorical awareness is a precondition for economic conversation. And economic conversation is obviously carried out in dialogue. Our book will help students become rhetorically aware, and much more dialogical. At least, so we may hope.
Ziliak: Our book combines a common technique in economics and biology (an approach to thinking) with a common technique in history, culture studies, and English (relating the self to a profound historical, economic, or political event).
McCloskey: It creates a space for personal exploration, scientific invention, and discussions of social justice.
Ziliak: And a way to argue reasonably and scientifically, as we'll show in Chapter 1 when we introduce the Toulmin Model of Argument.
Klamer: All right. Let's get started. As we say in Dutch, Een goed begin is een daalder waard, literally, "A good beginning goes further."