Friday 24 July 2015

In praise of academic paternalism

I've used this week's New Zealand Initiative column at The NBR, in part, to pay a little tribute to Seamus, whose funeral is today. 

I start out in The NBR piece by critiquing the ever-trendy push to abandon the standard economic curriculum in favour of critical theory. 

Unfortunately, at least some higher-ups in NZ academia think it a grand idea. One might suspect that social pressure among some of their colleagues makes having market-friendly economists around somewhat embarrassing for them. 

But there's also a sense that it might boost student numbers if we catered to students' innate preferences rather than trying to provide an education. Customer choice is important, but we abandon what it means to be an academic department if we drop core theory in favour of the flash-trendy feel-good. Paternalism is needed in academia because the students don't know what they need until they've studied it. It's the academics' job to keep abreast of what's important and to make sure that students are getting the training they need, regardless of what they think they want when they start the degree. If they want a degree in mush-headedness, there are plenty of other departments willing to provide certification in it. 

And from there, I talked about Seamus's contribution:
For the eleven years I taught in Canterbury’s economics department, we provided what I think was the country’s best technical training in microeconomics. That was due, in no small part, to my good friend, and then-colleague, Associate Professor Seamus Hogan.
Seamus died last Friday, aged 53, of a brain aneurysm.
Seamus trained a generation of Canterbury economists. His intermediate-level course in microeconomic theory gave every student the technical background they would need to understand either mainstream problems or those coming from the fringes. His honours-level capstone course built on those foundations to show students the cases in which the standard model worked, the cases in which it didn’t, and the ethical presuppositions of different frameworks. In highlighting just what was meant by an efficiency norm, it was deeply critical of parts of the mainstream consensus. But it simply could not be done without the technical and mathematical apparatus established earlier on.
To put it tritely, you can’t think outside of the box unless you understand the box very well indeed. Sure, you can stand on the fringes and yell about the evils of neoliberalism, as many of those re-tweeting Parker’s article like to do, but your critique will be as empty as Jenny McCarthy’s condemnation of vaccines. Seamus taught his students to build the boxes and then twirl them on their index fingers.
Seamus’s students knew how lucky they were to have received proper training in economics with him, rather than a Post-Autistic-styled curriculum. A memorial webpage is already filled with their tributes. One of his students, who spent time at the Reserve Bank before heading off for a doctorate at Berkeley, rightly identified him as the “key factor in making Canterbury economics graduates so well represented in Wellington.” Seamus set and maintained the rigorous academic culture in the department that would not compromise the quality of the teaching programme and that would not pander to trendy, but ultimately fruitless, critiques of the mainstream.
Being able to understand the standard framework matters because so much is built upon it. 
Earthquakes brought budget cuts. Scepticism of the value of rigorous theoretical approaches relative to Manchester-style critiques meant the end of Seamus’s courses, despite their popularity. Seamus died six months after moving his family to Wellington, where he had joined Victoria University’s School of Government.
Academia needs a little paternalism. The tributes of those who have gone through the courses should count for more than the whims of those who do not yet know better, and now will not get the chance to.
I'm back in Christchurch for the day serving as pall-bearer and will say a few words in memorial at the service.

Some in the Department at Canterbury have set up a GiveALittle page accepting donations towards the continuing education of the Hogan kids. I'd be surprised if Seamus hadn't adequate life insurance, as he was one of the most ridiculously conscientious people I've known, but if it feels good to help a little, hit the link. I've suggested that it be put towards continued musical tuition. It mattered a lot to Seamus, and they've lost their main tutor.

The bigger issues around what Economics departments now can and should offer are, for me, under a Somebody Else's Problem field. But I don't envy my former colleagues their task: I think they're now at a staffing complement of 8.5, including two teaching fellows, where before the earthquakes we were 19.6.


  1. What exactly does "critical theory" mean in the context? Frankfurt school? Postmodern? Cultural studies of financial markets?

    I'm not sure this is the right adjective to use, but I hope it will be an appropriate funeral.

  2. But is it academic paternalism or is it just defining a "production function"? Producing economic understanding requires certain inputs to be used in certain quantities in certain ways, much like the production of any other good or service. No paternalism needed, just a drive for productive efficiency.

  3. It's paternalism in requiring the bundling of economic understanding with an economics degree for those who'd prefer the degree to be something else entirely.