Try Humble, Positive Modeling, Not Neutrality

On grappling with uncertainty in the classroom.

The kerfuffle over the relative merit of forcing “viewpoint neutrality” in history classrooms puzzles me. No wonder: Although an historian by Ph.D., I have taught mostly economics for almost three decades!

Historians, and I daresay others teaching the human sciences, could learn much from what I call “econogogy,” specific pedagogical techniques employed by many, though by no means all, economists. Students pay tuition or incur debt to develop independent analytical-thinking skills (and to have some fun), not to learn the political opinions of professors that they could see for free on X or Facebook.

Professors can leverage current events without subverting their core curricular missions.Dramatic current events, from terrorist attacks to global financial meltdowns and pandemics, provide professors across the human sciences with unique opportunities to obtain that most precious of resources, the attention of students, relatively inexpensively. Historic global events therefore tempt many professors to leave the usual confines of their courses.

With that potential reward, however, comes the ample risk that professors will pontificate on political matters instead of providing students with experiences of educational value. By employing the techniques of econogogy, though, professors can leverage current events without subverting their core curricular missions.

For starters, keep it positive. By that, I don’t mean upbeat; I mean not normative. Make claims that, if not empirically supported, are at least inherently testable or falsifiable. Don’t pass moral judgements; just inform students what happened and help them to understand, to the extent possible, why it happened.

For example, I do not tell students that market economies are “better than” command economies because “better” imposes a value judgement. I show them, with the best available data, that countries with market economies have much higher output per person, which is highly correlated with more and/or higher-quality housing, health outcomes, education levels, and so forth. Students can decide for themselves if it is better or worse to live relatively short lives in relative squalor in exchange for relative equality of incomes.

Similarly, I don’t claim that enslavers are evil. I present a model that lays out the conditions in which one might prefer to use slave or other forms of labor—indentured, family, seasonal wage, hourly wage, and so forth. Some may find this reprehensible but only because they confuse explanation with justification. In fact, people who want to prevent slavery from rising yet more (it’s been waxing globally for decades) must understand its underlying causes and conditions. Evil is either a constant or something that becomes apparent only after the deed is done, so calling enslavement evil doesn’t help to analyze or thwart it.

Next, stay intellectually humble. I don’t mean give up the pursuit of knowledge; I mean acknowledge that some things are inherently unknowable, and many other things remain unknown. The intellectually humble professor does not privilege his or her own views over those of others without empirical evidence of their superiority. Teach students methods to address past, present, and future problems, not to memorize conclusions based on incomplete data, sources, or theory. Talk in terms of hypotheses, not conclusions.

The intellectually humble professor does not privilege his own views without empirical evidence of their superiority.For example, if students want to know why the number of homeless Americans has risen in recent years, I will say that I do not know, but that I hypothesize that high state minimum-wage laws are to blame. I will then explain that the first way to test that hypothesis is to see if a strong correlation between homelessness rates and inflation-adjusted state minimum wages exists.

I’ll also point out that, before the Great Depression, the minimum wage in the United States was a natural one, room and board. In other words, farmers, ranchers, mining and timber companies, railroads, and even a few factories would “pay” employees three hots and a cot instead of cash. Even at that low wage, not everyone could always find work, but until the high wage policies implemented during the Depression, America’s major cities were not overrun by homeless people.

Similarly, I refuse to take sides in the current Israel-Palestine conflict, even if pressed. Instead, I say, “Look, it doesn’t matter what you or I or most people in the world think about the situation. Dastardly deeds cannot be undone. The people killed and the stuff destroyed on both sides are sunk costs, lost forever, water under the bridge. But you know what? Maybe we can do something to stop something similar from occurring in the future.”

Then I walk them through a game-theory model, available here, that indicates conditions in which increasing economic freedom decreases the likelihood of violence. I then say something like, “Is my analysis correct? I don’t know, but it seems more productive to think about thwarting a recurrence than casting blame for something that cannot be undone.”

Sometimes, though, it is more intellectually honest to simply “teach the controversy”—or, in other words, to supply the best of both sides of an argument. Aleksandra Przegalinska and I do that in our book Debating Universal Basic Income because, unlike communism, UBI has yet to be attempted anywhere at scale. We therefore can say nothing positive about it beyond what its proponents and opponents have claimed, so a synopsis of that we share with students.

That is not to argue, however, that teaching the controversy is always appropriate. It might make sense to give equal time to Creationism and the Theory of Evolution by Means of Natural Selection in a history of science course, but not in a biology class.

Professors should serve as role models for intellectual humility instead of pontificating.To try to explain a complex and ever-changing world, humans over the millennia have concocted all kinds of stories. Most students do not need to learn those tales, except to warn them that their views are not inherently valuable, no matter what postmodern educators have told them. Their views, as well as the views of their professors, are valuable only insofar as they accord with the real world, either as descriptions or as explanations. It would be helpful, therefore, if professors would serve as role models for intellectual humility and work through methods, models, and evidence instead of pontificating.

Econogogy, therefore, is not just about formal hypotheses and models like those mentioned above. It is also about modeling in the educational-psychology sense. According to Albert Bandura’s 1977 observational-learning theory, effective professors (and other types of educators) do not just tell students what to do or not to do. They do it themselves in the classroom and in their own research and writing.

In other words, students primarily exposed to tendentious, sloppy-thinking, plagiarizing professors will themselves plagiarize, embrace logical fallacies, and pontificate about how they want the world to be rather than discern the way that it is.

By contrast, students primarily exposed to thoughtful, intellectually careful, and humble professors will themselves become more thoughtful and intellectually humble citizens, workers, investors, and voters and become more likely to seek out, and make, positive claims rather than normative ones.

I do not claim that econogogy is novel, unbiased, viewpoint-neutral, or random. (In fact, professors will probably do best when they stick to topics that they know well, which are non-random.) Econogogy does, however, seem more likely than any form of rote memorization or indoctrination, from the left, right, or center, to develop independent, analytical thinkers able to evaluate information in a disciplined and logical fashion—and thus save themselves, and our democracy, from mis-, dis-, and mal-information.

Robert E. Wright is a historian of economic policies ranging from banking to higher education to slavery, with over 20 books and 70 peer-reviewed articles and book chapters to his credit. His biography of financial journalist and controversial corporate “gadfly” Wilma Soss, coauthored with Bucknell’s Jan Traflet, came out in 2022.