Accounting History and Governmental Inquiries: An Experiment in Adversarial Roleplay

Article excerpt

Abstract: Governmental inquiries where accounting is a central focus are a rich resource for injecting much needed historical content into accounting courses in higher education. An adversarial roleplay recreated a Wage Stabilization Board hearing in Washington, D.C. which, in 1952, led to President Truman's seizure of the American steel industry and ultimately to a constitutional crisis. The roleplay centered on the accounting issues debated by that Board in response to a highly provocative submission by W. A. Paton on behalf of the steel industry. The roleplay revealed strong support for recourse to such historical materials in providing an enjoyable, stimulating and effective way of learning accounting theory. Ancillary benefits were that students gained a better understanding of some important economic, political and constitutional issues in American history.

INTRODUCTION

There are clear pedagogical benefits in developing students' understanding of accounting history. Study of history engenders critical appreciation of contemporary accounting practice and of contextual settings in which accounting policy debates have taken place. Not surprisingly, considerable interest has been shown recently in the variety of media and the range of resource materials available to facilitate introduction of accounting history into accounting courses. Coffman, Tondkar and Previts [1993] have provided a treasury of historical articles, biographies, and videotapes which instructors in financial accounting courses might adopt to enhance course material. Their work elaborates on a general theme which had been addressed previously by several authors. For example, Bloom and Collins [1988] advocated experimentation by incorporation of historical "nuggets" in financial accounting courses. Koeppen [1990] emphasised the need to encourage accounting students' awareness of "events" that had influenced the development of accounting, and Beauby and Bradford [1992] advocated an "interdisciplinary historical" approach to teaching accounting. Although Coffman et al. [1993] cite many useful teaching resources, they do not cover the entire array of media available to instructors wishing to incorporate accounting history into existing courses. Furthermore, they emphasise what should be incorporated, but do not discuss creative strategies regarding how historical materials might be used effectively.

This paper reports an Australian roleplay in which an exemplar of a particular type of accounting historical material proceedings of governmental and quasi-governmental boards of inquiry - was incorporated into an existing course in financial accounting theory through the device of an adversarial roleplay. The reconstruction of a "real" adversarial inquiry hearing was designed to heighten students' awareness of the historical pedigree of much contemporary debate on accounting theory.

The following section outlines the reasons for incorporation of historical materials in the fashion described. Thereafter we introduce the proposition that governmental inquiries, in particular, are a useful historical resource. Emphasis is given to the contribution of W. A. Paton [1949, 1952] to two such inquiries. Paton's later [1952] contribution forms the core of the Australian experiment, reported below. We found the teaching strategy to be effective in promoting a better understanding by students of theoretical issues in accounting.

HISTORY AND ACCOUNTING EDUCATION

Accounting educators throughout the world have been criticised for producing "narrow" graduates who have little understanding of history, politics, philosophy and the liberal arts in general. In Australia, for example, the Report of the Review of the Accounting Discipline in Higher Education [Mathews, 1990] recommended that Universities and Colleges make substantial changes to their undergraduate accounting degrees. In particular, accounting degrees should become broad-based degrees with a choice of majors, and should focus on a range of related disciplines, including the humanities. …