Economic Illiteracy

Are Today's Students Unwilling to Accept Positions Purely on the Basis of Rational Argument?

Paul Cleveland is an associate professor of economics at Birmingham Southern College in Birmingham, Alabama.

Outing the fall semester, the first examination given to my principles-of-economics students included this:

Discuss the following statement: When an economic function is turned over to the government, social cooperation invariably replaces self-interest as the motivation for human action.

The proper answer to the question, of course, is that the statement is “false” and that redistributing control over property cannot change the underlying nature of human beings. In truth, “self-interest” remains an adequate term for describing human behavior, and it applies as much to government officials as it does to anyone else. If the demise of the Soviet system taught us anything, it is that communism will not reconstruct humanity and or usher in the “new man” who suddenly becomes only concerned about others.

I had chosen the question because one of the six chapters of our text covered on the exam dealt with the field of Public Choice, which analyzes these matters. I had also spent a significant amount of time in class discussing the essence of human action. I thought that the question was clear cut, and so I naively assumed that the majority of the class would easily answer it correctly. That was not to be. Only half the 50 students answered the question more or less correctly. The other half espoused a kind of incoherent Marxist dogma that would have suited the taste of not only Karl himself, but of Lenin, Stalin, and Mao as well.

Students Who Should Know Better

To put the situation into better perspective it is important to understand my institution and the kind of students I teach. Birmingham Southern is a small, private liberal arts college that has gained a reasonable national reputation for quality education. In Alabama the college is considered the premiere school of higher learning of this type. As such, it attracts students of high caliber. Our students generally go on to graduate and professional schools and often do well in their careers. In addition to this, because it is a private college, the students are generally from middle-class or upper-middle-class backgrounds. Therefore, the majority would have received their lower education in some of the better public schools in the state, while a minority would have had private school education.

Given all this, it might be curious that my students did so poorly with the question. More surprising perhaps is that among the students who answered the question correctly, two were from other countries, the former Yugoslavia and China. It is interesting that these two young women who have firsthand knowledge of government control over the entire economy were able to discern the falsity of the statement I presented, while those reared in some of the best circumstances the United States has to offer could not.

As I pondered this, I came to a few conclusions. First, there is a real problem in education today. Students seem unwilling to accept a position purely on the basis of rational argument. My knowledge of political economy and the evidence I provided in class were not enough to persuade my students that human nature does not change because the government takes over something. At least half were apparently unwilling to relinquish their socialistic views despite the facts and arguments I had presented. This reminds me of Ben Franklin’s statement, “Experience keeps a dear school, but the fool will learn in no other.”

The second conclusion is that the government’s socialized educational system has done an excellent job of propagandizing students into accepting socialistic dogma. Throughout the classroom presentations there was little debate and almost no discussion that might have allowed us to dispense with the myths of socialism. Yet it would appear that for the students none was necessary, for they felt no need to actually think about the issues themselves.

My final conclusion is that there is much work to be done in this country to teach people the nature and value of human freedom and private initiative. I am determined to step up my own efforts to engage my students in meaningful discourse so that they might see the falsehoods of socialism. Perhaps I am too pessimistic, for half the class did get the question right. But as a teacher, I am compelled to believe that that success rate is too low.

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