Friday, October 15, 2010

Capitalism and Freedom, and How They're Taught at American Universities

An October 6th Manhattan Institute conference explored "whether students are getting information or disinformation about economics".
In the discussion, several big points stood out.

First, many students enter college with a jaundiced view of capitalism and the free market (“the New York Times view of the world” as Professor Butos put it) that requires a good deal of deprogramming. Unfortunately, only a small minority of students take any economics classes and even there, the focus is often more on technical analysis than on what Professor Peart calls “the big questions.” Adam Smith, after all, came to economics through philosophy and regarded the moral case for economic freedom to be at least as important as the pragmatic case.

Professor Klein observed that the professoriate is strongly dominated by leftists. In many humanities and social science departments, voter registration is usually at least 10 to 1 for parties on the political left (Democrats, Greens, and others) over those on the right (Republicans, Libertarians, and others). It’s not uncommon for there to be no “right” faculty members at all.

How much does that fact matter? It’s not true that every professor slants every course to favor his or her socio-economic beliefs, but there is apt to be more of that slanting when there is no one to provide any push-back. In ideologically monolithic departments, professors tend to bolder in tossing out anti-capitalist tidbits than if they have some colleagues who will say, “Wait a minute"....

Professors Hanley and Butos stressed that college students should not be taught just the nuts and bolts of economic principles, but the much broader idea that capitalism is but one aspect of the free society (emphasis mine--Darren). At Trinity College, freshmen take a seminar to show them, as Prof. Butos put it, that classical liberalism is not a fixed set of conclusions, but a way of looking at the world that opens up a great number of questions.

There was general agreement among the panelists that well-taught courses like that are in great demand among students. Most don’t like being preached to and they want to know if and how ideas about economics are contested.

Professor George argued, as the panelists had, that the case for the free market needs to be made philosophically and not just on efficiency grounds. Students need to understand that the free market is crucial to human flourishing. It acts as a counter-weight to government overreach and protects the institutions of civil society. And those institutions help to inculcate the moral virtues that are essential to the free market.

So true! Countries with little economic freedom have little of any other sort of freedom either. Sadly, few students have ever heard a teacher or professor point out that connection...

He mentioned a course entitled “Ideas and Arguments” that he has for several years team-taught with the black scholar Cornel West. The students read and discuss a wide range of authors including Plato, Augustine, Marx, Hayek, Martin Luther King, and Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Professors West and George don’t agree on much, but the erudite discussion of divergent views is brain food of the highest order.

Courses like that, giving students intellectual clash over “big ideas” might be the most effective means of smuggling pro-market thinking into the curriculum.

You owe it to yourself to read the whole thing.


mazenko said...

OK, Nanny state. I think they're big boys and girls at this point. This sounds like the whining that if kids even hear the word "evolution," it will destroy years of family and church teaching, and if they learn to respect the rights of gay individuals, it will make them gay.

Granted, that's a bit of hyperbole, and I certainly concede that kids are pretty darn impressionable up to a certain age. But that age is definitely on the earlier side of college economics.

For goodness sakes. If this consumer-obsessed generation can be turned into Marxists in a freshman college history or econ class, the republic is a lost cause.

Darren said...

Clearly you read a different article than the one I linked to. No one said the students will be turned into Marxists. The concern is that the breadth of their educations will suffer--isn't education what they're there for?