David R. Henderson  

Doug North Eats Crow

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I'm always impressed when someone admits an error, and especially impressed when he admits an error brought to his attention by an undergrad in an introductory economics course. I just happened to read Douglass North's graceful tribute to the late Paul Heyne in The Economic Way of Thinking by Heyne, Boettke, and Prychitko. Here's the fun excerpt:

Shortly after assuming the chairmanship [of the U. of Washington's econ department], I decided I should go back to teaching the introductory course to see just what we did. I was dismayed to find that it had not changed an iota from my undergraduate days. The textbooks were full of the formal jargon of economic theory elucidating the perfectly competitive model, imperfect competition a la Chamberlin and Joan Robinson, and monopoly replete with all the marginal analysis and appropriate graphs. Following the tradition, I was in the midst of my fourth lecture on perfect competition, illustrating it with the case of American agriculture, when a student in the back of the auditorium noisily took exception to what I was saying. I thought I would teach him a lesson and invited him to address the class, explaining himself. He did, describing effectively the myriad of price supports, milk marketing acts, sugar production subsidies, etc. that pervaded agriculture and made it far from the competitive model. [DRH: not quite. When we analyze price supports, we use the perfectly competitive model and do so appropriately.] I slunk back to my office and began a search for a more effective teaching program.

North goes on to say that that's why he hired Paul Heyne. A great move.

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CATEGORIES: Economic Education

COMMENTS (7 to date)
ThomasL writes:

A great thing about EWoT is that it has gone through so many editions out, even though it is a textbook you can pick up an older edition quite cheaply.

I think my copy of the 11th edition* was $10 delivered, but I bet it can be found for even less.

*The 11th definitely has that forward.

Bruce Bartlett writes:

Your story reminds me of a similar anecdote. Art Laffer used to start his classes at the University of Chicago business school with some complicated mathematical proof on the chalk board that he knew none of the class would understand-it was just to intimidate them and make sure they knew who was in charge. Well, one year someone in the back of the class raised his hand and in halting English-he was from the Dominican Republic-he told Art that he had made a mathematical error-and he had. Art was so humiliated he canceled class for the day.

David R. Henderson writes:

Great story!

Michael Strong writes:

At least as important as Doug North eating crow is the fact that he actually cared about teaching, despite the incentive system of academia. That fact led to the extraordinarily serendipitous opportunity to hire Paul Heyne and support him in his commitment to a liberal arts approach to introductory economics education. I respect Doug North more for this decision than I do for the fact that he won a Nobel Prize and as much as the fact that he mainstreamed a focus on institutions in development economics.

Academia, like markets and government, is an incentive system in which most of the time agents act in accordance with their incentives. Thus academia suffers from "academic failure" in much the same way that markets suffer from "market failure" and government suffers from "government failure." North's commitment to pedagogical quality, despite the lack of incentives to have such a commitment, may well have changed history by means of giving Paul the years of experience in a sympathetic environment that led to "The Economic Way of Thinking."

Consider what history might have been like if the dominant introductory textbook in the 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s had been "The Economic Way of Thinking" instead of Samuelson's text.

JimS writes:

I had Paul Heyne for my intro micro course 21 years ago. Possibly the best prof I had at UW (2 others could give him a run for the money). Truly a great teacher.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Michael Strong,
Well put. I do think history would have been quite different.

Boban Kostelic writes:

Doug North had more time for undergraduate econ majors than for Popes and Presidents. I experienced it myself, and was amazed. We need more like him. He probably couldn't even get into a contemporary econ grad program though, and I'm sure he would tell you so.

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