Popular Science Monthly/Volume 27/May 1885/Methods of Teaching Political Economy

947508Popular Science Monthly Volume 27 May 1885 — Methods of Teaching Political Economy1885James Laurence Laughlin




A NATION is sometimes so bitterly taught by sad experience in financial errors—as was the case with France in John Law's time, and again in the issue of paper assignats during the Revolution—that, on the principle of the "burned child," it ever afterward finds that it unconsciously keeps to the right and avoids the wrong path. So that to-day France is a country where correct conceptions of money are almost universal, and her public monetary experiments are, as a rule, most admirably conducted. In somewhat the same way does the individual gain his proper knowledge of political economy. Principles must be seen working in a concrete form. The key to efficient teaching of the subject is to connect principles with actual facts; and this process must go on in the beginner's mind only through experience. By experience, I mean the personal (subjective) effort of each one to realize the working of the principle for himself in the facts of his own knowledge. The pupil must be put in the way of assimilating for himself the principles of his subject, in such a manner that he feels their truth because they are apparent in explanation of concrete things all around him. And for this purpose nothing is so useful as a sharp struggle, an effort, a keen discussion, or possibly a failure of comprehension at the time; for nothing will so awaken one to intellectual effort and finally result in the safe lodgment of the principle within one's thinking as an obstruction and its removal. That this is the aim to be always kept in view by the teacher and student is made clear, it is to be hoped, by the previous analysis of the "Character and Discipline of Political Economy." It is now my purpose to make some suggestions as to the practical methods of teaching by which this can be carried into effect:

1. The relative advantages of lectures and recitations in political economy have never, to my knowledge, been openly discussed. An experience with both methods of teaching leads me to think that the lecture system, pure and simple, is so ineffective that it ought to be set aside at once as entirely undesirable. No matter how clear the exposition of the principles may be, no matter how fresh and striking the illustrations, it still remains that the student is relieved by the instructor from carrying on the mental processes which he ought to go through for himself. In fact, the clearer the exposition by the lecturer, the less is left to the student—the lecturer, in fact, is the chief gainer by the system. Moreover, while listening to a connected and logical unfolding of the principles, the student is lulled into a false belief that, as he understands all that has been so clearly presented to him, he knows the subject quite well enough; and the result is to send out a number of conceited men who really can not carry on a rational economic discussion. They wholly miss the discipline which gives exactitude, mental breadth, keenness, and power to express themselves plainly and to the point. Then, not being forced to think over a principle in its application to various phases of concrete phenomena, they know the principle only in connection with the illustrations given by the lecturer, while they utterly fail to assimilate the principles into their own thinking. The subject then becomes to them a matter of memory. They memorize the general statements without ever realizing their practical side, and that which is memorized for the day of examination is forgotten more speedily than it is learned, and the sum total of the discipline has been simply a stretching of the memory. In fact, with the average student in almost any subject the lecture system leads to cramming, At the best, it affords a constant temptation to put off that kind of internal struggle which must be gone through with—a period of doubts and questions—by which alone a clearer conception of the subject ultimately emerges. In fact, it is doubtful if the student ever gets much, if any, of that mental attrition on the subject which is the most valuable part of the work. An experience of a year in lecturing to a class of two hundred and fifty, including the best and the poorest men in the university, convinced me of the truth of the above position; and their examination-books were the most unsatisfactory I had read for years.

The usual alternative to the lecture system is the plan of recitations from a text-book. Even the simplest form of recitations is, in my opinion, better than listening to lectures. At least, the student is put to it to express the sense in words under the criticism of the teacher. But this plan has its evident difficulties. If the pupil is called upon for only what is contained in the book, he falls into the habit of memorizing, and fails to think for himself. If you give him the clew, he can tell you on what part of the page the statement is found, and can put the idea in the language of the book; but he knows nothing of the power of applying it to what he sees. If the learner is very clever and inquisitive, he may do something for himself, but the average pupil quite misses the real good of such a course.

2. As it is evident that neither lectures nor formal recitations in the old fashion are satisfactory, we are inevitably led to adopt a plan which possesses the advantages of both. Some text-book is essential as a basis for the instruction. In it the pupil should find an exposition of the principles and a provocation to apply them to practical things as he reads. Then he comes to the class-room as intelligently familiar with the principles as his reading can make him. Now comes the work of the instructor. At first it is surprising how easy it is to show even to the best men a gap in their knowledge, or a misunderstanding of the principle. Present an illustration different from that of the book, and ask them to explain the situation. The necessity of seeing the essential point in the facts, and the attempt to describe the operation of the principle, will effectually rout the man who has merely memorized the book, and teach him to think out the matter more thoroughly for himself in the future. The teacher, also, will try to find out the accidental obstacles which in a young mind obstruct the understanding of the point in question. Let the pupil be asked to state the matter, and let the teacher note the imperfections. Now he can stimulate another student by questioning him as to one of these imperfections. If a clear correction is not obtained from a member of the class, let the instructor apply the Socratic method. At first ask a question which the learner readily understands, and then lead him naturally and gradually by logical steps up to the point wherein he had failed of understanding. He will then see his own difficulty, and at the same time he has had a little robust exercise for his mind. If this is carried on before his fellows, it will the better cultivate coolness and self-control before an audience.

3. Above all, the hour should not be wasted in simply rehearsing what has been read in the book. The student should go away from the class-room feeling that he has received some new idea, or some interesting fact which illustrates his subject. The work of the class-room should be cumulative in its effect as compared with the fruits of text-book reading. The teacher should in every way stimulate questions from members of his class, and urge the statement by them, either orally or in writing, of their doubts and difficulties. If there is some timidity in presenting a weakness in the presence of a class, ask some more manly person of the number, and the timid student will soon see that others are not much better off than he. In fact, all will have difficulties in understanding, or in interpreting principles, some trivial, some serious; and the pupil will become discouraged unless these are removed. When each one sees that others are also hindered by obstacles, there will be a greater freedom in asking questions. Moreover, in order to keep up a steady and regular training, which will produce the best disciplinary results, let the questions of the instructor every day run backward in review, and especially aim to bring out the connection of one part of the subject with another. It will be very effective if done just about the time that the past work is growing a little dim before the presence of newer ideas. In no subject, perhaps, more than in political economy, is it necessary to know the preliminary stages in order to understand the later work; so that the pupil must be actually in possession of principles previously expounded for which he may be called upon at any time. It is simply impossible for a person to be absent and neglectful for a time in his study, and then come into the class-room to make a brilliant show on an intermediate fragment of the subject. He can be too easily exposed as a humbug to attempt it a second time. Moreover, thus to force him to do the work as he goes along is the greatest favor one can do for the pupil; and the usual cramming before the examination becomes, in reality, a general review, which is very useful in bringing him to see the connection existing throughout the whole subject.

4. If the class is too large to reach each member as often as the instructor might wish in the above method, there is one device which is more or less useful. At the beginning of the hour let him write a question upon the blackboard, to be answered by each one in writing within the first fifteen minutes. The attempt to write out an explanation clearly, without hint or clew from the instructor, will reveal to the best student the deficiencies and gaps in his knowledge. Each one will then have the keenest interest to know what is considered a satisfactory answer to the question. At the next exercise of the class, the instructor can read some good and some bad answers, point out the general mistakes, and advise them for the future. No exercise can be better than this in cultivating the habit of careful expression, and in learning how to make a clear and pointed exposition of a subject in a brief space of time. This practice tends to secure the accuracy which in the oral discussions is made second to fluency and readiness.

5. Since the chief work of the class-room is not to enable students to discover principles, but rather to understand and apply them, probably the most useful method of interesting a class is to present to them by extracts from the newspapers of the day bits of fallacious discussions which may come under the head of the subject in hand, and ask for criticism and discussion of them. The appositeness of a timely topic is peculiarly valuable for such purposes. In fact, the practical matters of our own country will never fail to excite a lively interest in almost any class; and through this interest the teacher can find a way of leading men to study principles more carefully. A national or State campaign is very likely to furnish an instructor with a plentiful supply of extracts for discussion by his class. The learner in political economy is not hindered by the same disagreeable obstacles, as impede the medical student, in finding subjects on which to put his learning into practice.

6. Many minds are unable to keep hold of an abstraction, or general principle; or they have been untrained in making nice distinctions between ideas or definitions. Just as in beginning a strange language, when words of widely different meaning have a similarity to the untutored eye, the distinctions do not make much impression. So it is in regard to ideas and definitions in political economy. Therefore, visible expression of the abstract relationships, by diagrams, or by any figures which represent the abstract in a concrete form, will be of very considerable service to the ordinary student. This matter seems to me to be of such practical importance in teaching that it will be worth while to illustrate my meaning by a few examples:

(a.) Since material wealth comprises all things that have value; since capital is only that wealth employed in reproduction, and not used by the owner himself; and since money is that part of wealth in circulation aiding in the transfer of goods the relations between the three may be expressed to the commonest apprehension by some such device as the following, in which the area of circle A represents the amount of wealth; B, the capital saved out of the total wealth; and C, the money by which goods are transferred only that part of circle C being capital which, inside of circle B, is being used as a means to production.

Again (b), it is seen that different classes of laborers, arranged according to their skill, form, as it were, social strata, of which the largest and the poorest paid is composed of the unskilled laborers at the bottom. This may be shown to the eye at once by the sections of a pyramid, in which A represents the largest and least paid class; B, C, and D, etc., the better-educated, and relatively more skillful laborers; ending finally in the few, at the top, of the most competent executive managers. Now, if A were to become as fully skilled as B, and competition

should become free between all members of A and B; and if this were to go on in the same way to include C the effects of this breaking down of the barriers which hinder competition might be illustrated by the following changes in the above pyramid: the areas of A, B, and C may be thrown together into one area within the whole of which movement and choice is perfectly free to the laborer, and wherein wages are in proportion to sacrifice. This can be done by striking out the lines of division between A, B, and C, and by representing the change by the area included between the base and the dotted lines.

Examples might be continued in illustration of my method, but these must suffice. By this means there can be planted inside even the dull mind an outline of an idea which can then be modeled and shaded to the condition of a natural truth. The teacher will find, by experience, that an idea thus given is very seldom forgotten. The pupil has thus once turned the abstraction into a concrete form, and he can now use it for himself after he has once grasped it. It does not at all imply that he will get hard and definite conceptions of human affairs by this process; for he is shown that the principle which he has once seen in a concrete form, appears in other forms, and he is constantly seeing that it is so.

7. In close connection with this method, but having an entirely different purpose in view, is the use of charts and graphic representations of statistics. The method just described above aimed to help in finding concrete expressions for the general principles; but graphic methods usually have as their object to assist in that part of the economic process heretofore referred to as verification. Every one knows the common dislike of dreary statistics; to many persons columns of statistics are repellent or meaningless. Collections of facts regarding banking, finance, taxation, and wages become a tangle in which one's direction is constantly lost. But arranged graphically the whole direction of a movement is seen at once, and the mind takes in new and unexpected changes, which force an investigation into their cause. Moreover, there comes a certain breadth of treatment, when, in looking at the facts graphically expressed, one is able to see the whole field at once. There is no waste of thought on temporary and accidental movements, for the action is seen from beginning to end at one glance. There are many charts which would illustrate this meaning very distinctly; but perhaps none are simpler than the one here appended, showing the steady and continuous fall in the value of silver relatively to gold since the discovery of the New World. No one has ever claimed that there has been any "unfriendliness" displayed toward silver in the legislation of the chief countries of the world before 1816, at the farthest, and yet the white metal had been steadily on the decline ever since the Spanish galleons, in the fifteenth century, began to pour the precious metals of America into the coffers of Spain.

In short, the more extended collection of economic data is now rendered possible by the better methods employed in census and statistical bureaus, and the resort to the work of verification of economic principles by the examination of these data is the one thing only which can redeem political economy from the baseless and common charge of being a set of impractical formulæ. Into this work one can carry no instrument so effective and helpful as graphic representations. In fact, the investigator, after having collected his tables and columns of figures, will find his gain in first putting them in some graphic form, before he can intelligently see exactly with what he has to grapple; then he can turn his energies directly upon the problems disclosed by the chart to every other eye as well as his own. The slow and painful work of months is in this way presented to a class in a few minutes, and the practical lessons caught at a glance. Indeed, in most problems the difficulty is to put others in possession of

the facts which one is about to discuss. For this purpose, charts are the labor-saving machine of statistics. They can be made on common white cotton cloth (called sarcenet), which receives ink (black or red or blue) or water-colors; or on heavy manila paper, made large enough by sticking two large sheets together. Some printers can now rule this paper in squares to suit the convenience of the worker; but these guiding-lines ought to be faint, and not so heavy as to overpower the lines of the chart. So far I have been speaking of charts for the class-room. Perhaps, in their own good time, such economic charts can be bought of educational agencies. But ordinary co-ordinate paper, on a small scale, is the best form in which to first arrange the chart. It can be purchased in sheets at a small price, and is invaluable for both student and instructor. In fact, no lesson is more stimulating to a class than to give them the data of a subject and ask them to put it into graphic form. For the first time they begin to realize that statistics are not dry; indeed, any one who has turned over the pages of Walker's "Statistical Atlas" will find out for himself how the columns of census tables can talk to him in forms and colors without producing weariness, but even with a power to give a sense of surprise at the interest they excite.

8. When the instructor comes to examinations he will find several difficulties. In making out questions he ought to keep in view that they should be arranged so as to test not the memory, but the power of the pupil to apply principles. For this reason the ideal paper should contain nothing which the student has seen in that form before. The facts he is called upon to explain ought to be fresh ones, and the fallacies he is to examine should be such as he had not previously considered. But for practical purposes it seems best to remember that a class is composed of all kinds of persons, and, while the majority of the questions should be of the character which I have described, yet at least a few easier and more encouraging questions should be set. The student should be instructed to study each question with care; and avoid haste in answering, before he is sure that he has really caught the point and essential idea of the question. Fairly good students often write about the question, but do not answer it. It should be definitely understood that no credit is given for such answers. Then, also, the examination can be used as a teaching process; since, by inserting an important subject, the attention given to it at these times will be such as to keep it from speedy oblivion. Moreover, it will be well, after the examination, to read a good and a poor answer to each question before the class. They will know better what is expected of them in the future—like troops after their first fight. After such an examination the instructor will find his class much more disciplined and more ready to exert themselves in the intellectual wrestling. The vigorous preparation for the examination has really given them a better grasp of the subject, and the teacher can easily bring on a warm discussion now, because they really know something and feel that they know it.

9. When first approaching the study, it has been found to be of service to some students to suggest that on the first reading of the text-book they note in the margins in a few penciled words the gist of each paragraph as it is read; then, at the close of the chapter, to advise the reader to review it by means of his marginal notes, and then make a general but brief synopsis of the chapter. This will both save time and teach that essential thing—how to study rapidly but thoroughly. It will destroy aimless reading, which is so common in these days of many books.

10. In advanced courses, much of what has been said in regard to these details will be less important, for the teaching is necessarily different in kind. Such courses naturally fall either (1) into those which continue to study principles, as the systems of various writers or schools of political economy in the past and present, or (2) into those which treat historical or practical questions. In the former the lecture system is unsatisfactory for reasons given above; and the class should themselves be constantly wrestling with the fuller discussion of subjects in which they can hitherto have had only a general knowledge. Experience seems to show that a topic, furnished with references to writers, affords the best method of procedure. This, of course, implies a good working library and a list of reserved books.

In the practical courses a large part of the training consists in teaching the student how to use books, how to familiarize himself with the principal storehouses of statistics, such, for example, as the English "Parliamentary Documents," or our own Government publications; how to collect his materials in a useful form; and then how to apply graphic representation wherever possible. The greatest good comes, of course, from putting the student on his own resources at once and forcing him to find his own materials, look up his own books and authorities, and come to a conclusion on the subject assigned to him independently of all aid or suggestion. The instructor can then at the conferences take up a paper for criticism and discussion, or first assign it to another member for that purpose. This is a feasible plan; but, if carried on throughout a whole course, it requires of the student so much time that his other work must suffer, and, in addition, but few subjects can be taken up in this thorough and leisurely way. In practice it has been found best to use the lecture system partially. One subject can be taken up by the instructor at regular exercises, for which he furnishes beforehand the references, and partly lectures and partly discusses the subject with his class, thus guiding them steadily over the field and directing the disposition of the time to be devoted to each subject. In this way many more subjects can be reached during the year. But the advantages of the investigating method can be partly retained by requiring a monograph from each member of the class on a practical subject of his own selection from a list prepared by the instructor, and this thesis can count for attendance on part of the lecture-work. In this thesis the student is pushed to do his best to give a really serious study to some particular topic, and he is expected to do it independently of any aid beyond general oversight and direction; and he is warned that the paper will be of greater value, provided it contain the bibliography of the subject and constant reference by page and volume to his authorities.

11. The preparation of bibliographies is part of a teacher's duty. Moreover, he who has access to a rich and well-appointed library can do a service to the rest of his guild by leaving behind him notes of his bookish experiences. He can in a few words say whether a book is good or bad for a particular purpose, or indicate what part of it contains a valuable discussion, or furnishes useful facts in a subject within the study. For this purpose it has been a great convenience to have little blank-books of ordinary stiff manila paper, six inches by three, with each page perforated like postage-stamps near the butt of the book, so that each page can be torn off smoothly. On this page a book can be entered under a suitable heading, with its exact title and author, and room still be left for a very generous amount of criticism or commendation, or for noting the contents of the book. The cards can be laid away alphabetically by subjects in a drawer, and will prove of invaluable aid at many times. Books of which one has heard but never seen, can also be entered with a star, to be erased when a book has been examined. This systematic habit is peculiarly desirable when one is hunting for the facts on a certain subject. One will in this way lose nothing by forgetting where a statement has once been seen.

In this brief and inadequate way I have attempted to suggest from my own experience what may enable others to avoid difficulties, and possibly to aid in a more rational method of teaching political economy. It is scarcely more probable that what I have said is all new than that others should agree with me throughout in what I have advanced; nor is it unlikely that other teachers may have many other suggestions to make in addition to mine. If my efforts may call them out and aid in better methods of teaching, I shall be amply repaid.