Using Economics and Literature to Understand Changing Perceptions about the Individual's Relation to Society

Article excerpt

When we teach principles of economics, we commonly assert that economists assume individuals are primarily motivated by rational selfinterest and then we carefully explain how a market system will lead us "as if by an invisible hand" to create maximum values given our limited resources. While some students are convinced by this approach, many are simply not engaged by this line of thought. Similarly, when English professors discuss the impact of political economy on the nineteenth century novel and vice versa, they are met with a good deal of indifference on the part of literature majors. As professors, when we encounter skepticism we often ask ourselves whether there is another way we can tell the story. Fortunately, we have had several opportunities to try an alternative approach. We (an economics professor and an English professor) have team taught a course that combines readings by economists and novelists. This approach has proven very successful in stimulating students to think about larger issues that traditional courses are not able to address.

Our course traces the development of modern economic ideas by juxtaposing writings of Adam Smith and other economists with novels to demonstrate how similar issues were being discussed by contemporary writers as the discipline developed. While the emphasis of the novelists and economists were often different, students begin to understand that they were often grappling with similar issues. That is, both novelists and economists were trying to understand how technological change and market forces were affecting the individual and society. They were both asking, "What is the role of the individual and what is the best way to organize society?" Of course, these questions are still vital ones and a course of this type can engage students to think seriously about these questions. This essay will describe the course content and relate some experiences and insights that may be useful to others attempting similar approaches.

Before we discuss content, however, we need to mention that the course was designed for an Honors program that offers seminar-style classes. Class size is limited to fifteen and students tend to have above average reading and writing skills. Hence, we could expect our students to be enthusiastic participants in classroom discussions; we were able to assign a significant amount of reading; we could require that students turn in biweekly reaction papers; and, we could assign longer papers in lieu of midterm and final exams.

On the first day of class we divide our students into small groups and ask them to consider what they think motivates individuals to behave the way they do in contemporary society and to match the motivations they list with a system of sociopolitical and economic organization that would best accommodate them. The exercise works well because it urges students to utilize their observations of contemporary socioeconomic behavior and political institutions, making them aware of the fact that they have a good deal to contribute to the classroom discussion even before they have had a chance to read any of the assigned materials.

The exercise also prepares students for their first writing assignment which asks them to identify Adam Smith's assumptions about human nature in The Wealth of Nations and to establish the connections between his assumptions and the economic program he advocates. Oral presentations of these papers provide an opportunity for the discussion of important concepts such as self-interest, human propensity to truck, barter and exchange, division of labor and its attendant benefits such as dexterity, saving of time, and invention of machines. It becomes apparent that for Smith what is important is not self-interest per se, but the transformation of self-interest into qualities that encourage the development of commercial civic society with its primary benefits of advancement of technology and creation of wealth. …