Sunday, August 21, 2011

it takes a lifetime to learn how to paint like a child

(Subject line is a modified version of a Picasso quote.)

Economists looking for ways to tell stories in their classrooms -- stories intended to run counter to the oft-trumpted idealisms found in many mainstream textbooks -- might look to children's stories as a treasure-trove of leftist-inspired themes such as equity, fairness, and collective action.

At least, that's the message behind this article which appeared in the NY Times today by Motoko Rich, titled "Fairies, Witches and Supply and Demand" (if you have run out of your 20 articles this month, try typing the article title into a Google search or getting a service such as "NYTClean"). Rich gives many interesting examples, and all it would take is some clever adaptations in order to distill these stories into educational content for first year undergraduates.

Near the end of the article, Rich confronts the obvious question: why is it so much more difficult to find children's textbooks espousing the excitement of competition and market exchange? His answer:
By and large, the economic lessons in children’s books lean left of center. “I think the writers are not particularly sympathetic to or don’t understand how a market works,” said Gary S. Becker, the Nobel laureate who teaches economics at the University of Chicago. “It’s not easy to convey that to a child. It’s not always easy to convey it to grown-ups.”

For the most part, the economic concepts conveyed in the books reflect values like generosity and equity rather than competition. Raymond Fisman, an economist at Columbia University, said his 3-year-old daughter’s favorite books teach the importance of sharing and gift-giving, values that might not lead to the greatest wealth in the real world. But, he added, “I doubt that 3 is the age where you start teaching people the brutal economic truths of grown-up commerce.”
At first I thought -- wait a sec! I could do better than that! Not. So. Simple!

But then, after a bit of reflection on the hours I've spent glued to a Harry Potter book, or to some of my favorite games, or better yet, with my family, I came to the conclusion that No, Rich Has it Just About Right. ;)


  1. Ah, but have you checked out the Thomas the Tank Engine series? I don't know if they spring from books, but they have this icky undercurrent that seems to dictate the values of work, thrift, and doing what you're told. (I became aware of this while babysitting during our first year in the program -- so perhaps I was particularly sensitive to coded 'it is good to work hard!' messaging!)

  2. Ha! That actually used to be one of my favorite stories when I was really little. I don't recall the story that much at all (and especially now that it's a whole series -- I think when I was little there was just a single book), but I don't think I understand what's wrong with the "good work ethic" model. On its face, I wouldn't say it's a pro-capitalist argument, I mean, Marx for example thought hard work was the cornerstone of a good society.

    But I"m probably just missing the main theme -- I should go back and check them out :) thanks!