Friday, June 06, 2014

Clio on the Cross

Here's another example of searching for one thing and finding another.  I will tell the story in reverse chronological order, starting with what I found, this book review The True & Tragical History of 'Time on the Cross', which was published in October 1975 in the New York Review of Books.  (A pdf of the full article is available.)

I found it (the review) a fascinating read.  Fogel and Engerman's Time on the Cross had appeared the year before and caused quite a stir.  There was a conference organized at Rochester featuring many well known economic historians and other historians whose research focused on slavery in the southern states.  The conference was entirely devoted to an analysis and critique of Fogel and Engerman's research and critique they did.  The books under review were a consequence of that conference.  They end up ripping the research to shreds.

There are many things that were criticized as simply errors in reading the historical record.  There were other errors in choice of units of measurement to report results, leading to misinterpretation. (Is it a big effect or not?)  But, apparently, many historians make these sorts of errors on occasion.  The big deal critique was more systematic, a direct attack at cliometrics as exemplified in Time on the Cross.  Cliometrics is the use of quantitative historical data in econometric models to explain what happened.  The term cliometrics was coined by Stan Reiter, a professor I had for Math Econ (Debreu's Theory of Value) at Northwestern and a member of my dissertation committee.  (We used to call him Stan the n-dimensional Man.)  I believe that in coming up with cliometrics he meant the term in a comic and perhaps mocking way, but somehow it stuck. Witness that there is the Cliometric Society

Now to the methodological criticism.  A theoretical model is specified to explain the historically important variables.  In the ideal, data would be amassed to estimate parameters of the model and test its validity.  The problem is that the needed data often didn't exist.  So instead Fogel and Engerman would construct proxies.  To do this they'd make various ancillary assumptions.  To their credit they were up front about those.  But they'd pile one assumption on top of another in what Haskell, the author of the review, calls pyramiding.  The end result is a flight of fancy that is a major departure from the true history.  Couple this with the brashness in how Time on the Cross challenged the historical orthodoxy and you get plenty of scholars who are willing to have at the failings of Fogel and Engerman's work.

I took Economic History in the first quarter of my second year in graduate school, fall 1977 (not quite two years after this review appeared).  We may have read other things as well, but the featured reading was Time on the Cross.  With hindsight the question is why.  In Haskell's review he says, convincingly, that since Fogel and Engerman's work involved a team of other researchers, mainly doctoral students, who were loyal to the work, the book would persist in importance in spite of its shortcomings.  Our teacher for that Economic History course was Joel Mokyr, who was then an Assistant Professor.  I checked Mokyr's CV.  His doctorate is from Yale. (Engerman was and still is at Rochester.  Fogel was at Harvard.)   And Mokyr's dissertation is on a topic entirely unrelated to Time on the Cross.  I don't know if he attended that Rochester conference or not, but he doesn't otherwise appear to be intellectually tied to Fogel and Engerman's research.  So the best explanation I can come up with for why we read Time on the Cross is that Mokyr was going up for promotion and to find alternative readings (in effect, to rewrite the syllabus) would have been a lot of work at a time when his attention was elsewhere.  The alternative, that Mokyr was unaware of the weaknesses of the work, is far less attractive to contemplate.

I should add some sidebar here.  I was the representative for the second year students on the graduate studies committee.  Many in my cohort (including me) didn't understand why there was a requirement for Economic History and one agenda item I was tasked to bring forward was to request elimination of the requirement.  (I did but the request didn't work.)   Many years later I would teach Paul David's Qwerty paper to my students in Intermediate Microeconomics.  I am quite sympathetic to using the historical record as a way of illustrating and understanding economic fundamentals.   If that were the main reason for the Economic History requirement, I'd embrace it now, even if I wouldn't have as a graduate student, when all I cared about was the math modeling.  But if the the main reason was to expose students to cliometric methods, then I have my doubts as to the benefits of such study to this day.

* * * * *

Now I will backtrack and discuss how I came to think of that Economic History course.  I have been reading Carol Dweck's book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success and pretty much been fighting it right along.  She divides people into those with a fixed mindset (meaning they regard their own abilities as fixed) and those with a growth mindset (meaning that their abilities grow as they learn by stretching themselves in ways they haven't done previously).  While this dichotomy seems useful to me, particularly in discussing why undergraduates don't seem to push themselves more in their studies, I nonetheless find it too simple.  So I started to look for exceptions to what she said.  Are there cases where someone with a growth mindset nonetheless doesn't learn and, if so, why?

Using myself as an example I first thought about undergraduate study.  It turns out there were many cases where I learned little to nothing in a course and for varying reasons.  While I was still at MIT I took Math Analysis and Abstract Algebra and hit a wall in each class.  At the same time I was having emotional issues which led me to transfer to Cornell for the next semester.  Dweck says that when somebody with the growth mindset encounters an obstacle that person will double their efforts to overcome this, but she gives the impression that the response will be immediate.  In my case, I took a topology course in the fall of my junior year (my second semester at Cornell) where I did this amping up both on my effort and in the sophistication of my thinking and learned much of the content that was in the Analysis class that way.

Then I took a bunch of philosophy courses starting with one on Plato and Aristotle at MIT, then another one on Locke, Berkeley, and Hume, this time at Cornell, followed by a course on Kant's Critique of Pure Reason.  I could make some headway with Plato but the rest was pretty much over my head.  At some point in my retirement I might try again with the British empiricists to see if I could get more out of it.  I'm willing to say Kant is beyond my capabilities, permanently.

I also blew off my German reading course in the second semester, when it met at 8AM (one reason).  I was antipathetic to learning a foreign language in large part because my mother was a language teacher and German was her native tongue (another reason).  But there was a language requirement at Cornell with a proficiency test that had to be passed.  When I didn't pass that test after the second semester I took German in summer school and then did pass the proficiency test.

These examples together illustrate perhaps a lack of maturity or maybe a lack of commitment on my part.  So I wanted to find a case where neither of these were the explanation for the non-learning.  It made sense then to consider my experience in graduate school.  I have written elsewhere that it was transformative for me, particularly the first year and especially the first quarter of that first year.  I clearly was growing then.  It's with that as backdrop in which to consider the Economic History course.

One further factor is that at the time the Econ department at Northwestern administered the prelim (then a 3-hour test on micro and another 3-hour test on macro) at the beginning of the second year.  Getting past the prelim there may have been a natural tendency to relax a bit.  The immediate pressure was off.  I'm sure that was a factor but I don't think it gives the real explanation for what happened with Economic History.

The real reason is that I didn't care about the specific issues we studied.  My recollection is that we were preoccupied with the issue whether slavery would have died out on its own, had there not been a Civil War.   Fogel and Engerman argue that slavery was a highly productive and efficient form of agricultural production, so would not have died out.  Why should I care about how this argument gets resolved, one way or another?  I do recall us talking about the counter factual that if the railroads never came along and we relied instead on canals and rivers, then New Orleans might have become the biggest city in the U.S.  I found that discussion intriguing and would have gotten more out of the course had it been the focus.

In Dweck's examples either the courses are electives or, if they are required, (Chemistry for pre-med students, for example) then the students accept that necessity of the requirement.  She doesn't consider the case of students taking courses where they challenge the validity of the requirement.  For example, many Business students, particularly those in Accounting, feel it unnecessary to learn what is taught in Intermediate Microeconomics.  Their primary goal is to get through this required course unscathed grade-wise.  I don't believe this preference indicates anything at all as to whether they have a fixed mindset when taking their business courses. 

In the past I've always been somewhat antagonistic to these students, feeling they should be more curious about the economics.  Now, humming Sam Cooke's Wonderful World - don't know much about history, of the economic kind - at least I realize I was once in their shoes. 

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