Economics 057H

…and the Meaning of Innovation for a BS Degree

Chancellor Thorpe’s intellectual dud

by: David Ortiz

ECON 057H is a first-year honors seminar taught by Professor Buck Goldstein. The course attempts to teach systematic innovation and entrepreneurship, loosely defined as “creative destruction,” or changing older processes to newer and (ideally) better processes. Readings include a book on the theory behind innovation by Peter Drucker, entitled Innovation and Entrepreneurship (1985), The Blue Sweater by Jacqueline Novogratz, and some articles online, such as Michael Porter’s “What is Strategy?

I used to insist on the impossibility of students walking the halls of UNC for four solid years and escape learning anything at all. ECON 057H, however, which I took last semester, has led me to the cold reality that, in fact, vast numbers of undergraduates indeed learn nothing.

The class was a failure even according to its own stated goals and objectives, which should greatly trouble certain souls because Chancellor Thorp will be conducting a similar class, ECON 125, with over 400 students next fall. The aim of the class was to teach “systematic innovation;” it seemed more like a crash course in manipulating the instructors, which we students did with all the expertise of the most gifted musicians.

There were many reasons for this systematic failure—rampant favoritism, unclear assignments and expectations, lousy communication, shallow readings, inordinate amounts of wasted time, seeming disrespect for the students, a grading system based mostly around personal preference, and little to no apparent aid on the central projects of the semester. Above all, however, what most marred the seminar was a philosophical understanding of education that exists in a shallow ocean of childish emotion, as I describe later. Even on a technical level, though, there were so many errors and such poor structure that any hope of intellectual instruction was demolished.

The seminar discussion was always, as a consequence of inept guidance, stilted and dominated by a few more outspoken students. The treatment of topics was superficial at best, nonexistent as a norm. Even concerning the central question, “What is an entrepreneur?” the answer was so shallow as to immediately snag our little canoe in the mud: “an entrepreneur innovates.” Yes. But what, then, is innovation? The various answers that emerged from the muddled mess of the discussion was that innovation, essentially, is the systematic process of searching for better processes for your aims than those you are currently using. That, ladies and gentlemen, is the discovery of that beautiful human faculty, which the ancients called common sense.

Lack of intellectual depth formed the main problem with the class. Economic theory is fine, but for heaven’s sake let there be economic theory in an economics class. Drucker’s book is, in the opinion of a vast number of economic experts, a superficial treatment of certain management techniques, backed by antiquated examples from 1985, and a handful of principles that are easily derived through common sense. Discussion focused on the professor praising one-liners from his favorites, followed by examples essentially read from Wikipedia. Work basically meant one-page assignments, which were judged only according to how briefly – and superficially – they treated the issue at hand; a main project was assigned as well, but that merely meant a PowerPoint.

Throughout the semester I looked around and saw only bored faces, checked out expressions and Facebook accounts—a stark contrast to my other courses. My philosophy seminar on Enlightenment thinkers, taught by Dr. Larry Goldberg, for example, boasted vibrant discussion and acutely attentive students—qualities Econ 057H could not attribute to itself without outright deception. The difference between these two particular courses, as well as between their different results, lies in fundamentally different understandings of what truly is an education.

Education, understood in the Classical sense, is the formation of the soul to elect the good. This virtue was the singular aim of Plato and Aristotle. Education was not understood as mere facts or processes distilled into the blank receptacles of more or less talented students; it was, at a fundamental level, understood as holding before your students the vision of the good – and helping them to choose that good. Education was meant to be lived, to be acted upon both externally and internally, both in your words and actions and in your heart. There are few professors alive today who continue in that tradition. Indeed, there are few professors alive today who continue in any tradition.

The understanding of education that drives Econ 057H off the side of an intellectual cliff is far different and far less human. Behind this seminar on “innovation” and “entrepreneurship,” as well as behind many other courses at most universities today, education is understood as forming a certain set of skills in talented pupils. And that is all.

Surely, in more technical fields such as math, science, or economics, education does mean, in part, imparting certain skills. Teaching calculus involves teaching the skills to do calculus, of course. The same holds true in the humanities as well – teaching a student how to read a work of literature, such as a poem, or to analyze a painting, involves imparting a fundamental skill set without which no teaching can be said to have occurred. Yet, if I as a teacher am merely imparting skills to students irrespective of the different values of those skills themselves – am I truly a teacher?

In other words, if I teach economics simply as a way to make money – if I ignore what makes it more deeply useful, for example, as a means of social justice – then what differentiates me from a man teaching a beggar in an alley a card trick that will make him cash? The aims are the same: to make money. The more humanitarian aims are the same: the alleviation of poverty. The attitude towards the skill set is the same: it is merely useful so long as it generates cash. Buck Goldstein’s methods are really just those of a card shark; all he knows are tricks and all he cares about is learning new tricks, because in the end those tricks will enrich him financially while depriving him of moral and intellectual riches.

Do I want Plato or a card shark for a teacher? Which will make me into a better, more truly educated, person? Which can speak of the good, and which only of the ring of cheaply earned and easily lost coins?

The final consequence of this flawed and childish educational philosophy manifests itself as a form of close-mindedness. Because the overriding mindset of the class is to search in “unconventional” places for new solutions, it encourages students to ignore the “conventional” places, which still have great value. At one point, I was asked by the professor to make a defense of Classics, my area of studies, as a pursuit that could advance entrepreneurship (he frequently enjoyed highlighting my arcane major). I could have utilized any one of about half a dozen different arguments about why Classics actually transcends entrepreneurship, about why the latter is actually a weak concept both philosophically and practically, about how that’s not at all the point of Classics, etc. Instead, I chose to play by his game, arguing that the study of ancient Greek and Latin demands rigorous attention to detail, memorization, and hard work – all values crucial to pretty much any job in any market today, and to innovation.

Even by the standards and processes of the class philosophy itself, then, the study of Classics yields certain intangible qualities that can make for a very good salary later in life, although that’s certainly not why Classicists do what they do. The take-away is that the falsely open mindset—touted as looking for sources of change, for opportunities of improvement—places an artificial emphasis upon the “unconventional.” Consequently, Professor Goldstein and his ilk fail to look to Classics as a potential source of innovation—because they were glued to the latest Apple news like kids in a candy store. Candy may taste great and have bright colors, but the real meat and sustenance is found elsewhere.

Perhaps my thought is made most clear with an example. Take Apple’s revolutionary computer typeface, with a subtle touch of elegance that greatly refines the overall product and has demonstrably contributed to the success of Apple products. Steve Jobs found the inspiration for the design—vastly different from all market competitors at the time of its debut—in studying the slender and very ancient shapes of Chinese calligraphy before he dropped out of college.

Steve Jobs learned innovation and entrepreneurship in Chinese 200: so why again do we need Econ 057H?

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