Schumpeter the Teacher

18 May 2007 at 10:35 am Leave a comment

| Peter Klein |

Robert Solow took Joseph Schumpeter’s courses on Advanced Economic Theory and the History of Economic Thought at Harvard in the late 1940s. Not surprisingly, Schumpeter dazzled, but mostly confused:

The theory lectures bordered on incoherent; they alluded to everything but analyzed nothing. He would say: “Of course you know about X or Y, so I do not have to go into detail.” But we didn’t know about X or Y, as he must have realized. The history lectures were also disappointing. I do not remember where they began, but at the end of the term they had barely reached Adam Smith. The course felt like a stage display of multilingual erudition.

This is from Solow’s review of Thomas McCraw’s new Schumpeter biography in the May 25 New Republic (gated, unfortunately). (NB: Schumpeter’s rehabilitation of economic thought before Adam Smith is perhaps disappointing only to those who believe economics was created in 1776.) Solow likes the book but thinks McCraw underappreciates Schumpeter’s Theory of Economic Development (1911), probably his most important work, and overemphasizes Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy (1942), which Solow doesn’t care for.

I haven’t read the McGraw biography but learned from Robert Loring Allen’s earlier study of Schumpeter, Opening Doors, that Schumpeter wrote out his lectures in longhand, committed them to memory, then delivered them word-for-word, without notes, in the classroom. Ah, life before PowerPoint!

Speaking of idiosyncratic lecturers, Thorstein Veblen — the most eccentric economics professor ever to teach at the University of Missouri, myself included — was apparently horrible in the classroom. Hayek wrote of his experiences visiting the US in 1924-25 that “one of the first things the visiting economist was urged to do was to go to the New School for Social Research to hear Thorstein Veblen mumble sarcastically and largely inaudibly to a group of admiring old ladies — a curiously unsatisfactory experience” (Fortunes of Liberalism, p. 36).

Entry filed under: - Klein -, Teaching.

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