Klein on openness

by Russ Roberts on April 17, 2011

in Economics

My colleague Dan Klein makes a provocative case for openness and ideological transparency in the classroom. I agree.

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indianajim April 17, 2011 at 12:48 am

Ditto; I agree too.

Brad Hutchings April 17, 2011 at 1:02 am

Dan Klein remains the most interesting professor I never formally took a class from at UCI. This is brilliant:

Self-disclosing informs students that economists are heterogeneous. It teaches them a healthy suspicion of those who would pretend otherwise.

His paper works nicely into a narrative of influence versus control. I see it in everything from politics to transportation security to mobile device operating systems. I would hazard a guess that by adopting the influence posture, Klein has had a greater effect on more students in his academic journey than the most ardent partisan professors who wrap their opinions up in scientism and fake truths, drilling them into students until they acquiesce or give up.

Gil April 17, 2011 at 1:28 am

Actually it should be the opposite – tell students that if you’re against free markets and private ownership then you’re pro-totalitarian, pro-theft and pro-thuggery.

wb April 17, 2011 at 2:39 am

You should try to get him to discuss this for Econtalk.

Justin P April 18, 2011 at 9:26 am

I agree. I really liked the previous Dan Klein Econtalks.

vikingvista April 17, 2011 at 3:12 am

I find that professors typically are transparent, whether or not they intend to be. I can usually see right through them.

Randy April 17, 2011 at 7:20 am

As an adult student, yes, I could see right throught them. As a young student (a few decades ago), not so much. Experience matters, certainly, but also as an adult student I actually cared about the content.

Greg Ransom April 17, 2011 at 3:14 am

There are a number of audio recorded cases posted on the internet of professors who up front tell their students that non-leftist answers on the subject at hand are simply wrong anwsers .. and those answers will get you B or C or worse grades.

I’m not sure that ideological disclosure is enough.

vikingvista April 17, 2011 at 3:31 am

For the professors who demand bullshit, the smartest students always deliver. The professors think they are spreading the word, but all they are really spreading is contempt.

There is no shortcut for understanding. When a professor lacks it, there is no fix. Not openness, not attempted objectivity, not coursework by committee. A student must make his own understanding, his personal responsibility, always.

Ryan Vann April 17, 2011 at 2:19 pm

Right, if a student learns anything in college, it should be how to manipulate people by reflecting their own opinions. It’s incredible the amount of money institutions expect students to pay for the opportunity to be parrots.

Justin P April 18, 2011 at 9:27 am

Is there a site where these are on?
This reminds me of the case in California of the prof that was ridiculing the student in class for having a christian view of abortion or something. For the life of me I can’t remember enough even to try Googling it.

Steve_0 April 17, 2011 at 3:23 am

Greg, I would love to hear those.
Can you provide links?

DG Lesvic April 17, 2011 at 3:57 am

So, the professors should reveal their biases. And, suppose they don’t. Is it alright fthen or the students to do so? And, if ideological biases, how about professional biases? Is it alright for a student to reveal the conflicts between the science and the profession?

Prof. Horwitz would throw you right out of class for that. According to the standard that he holds everyone (but himself) to, you’re just supposed to attack a man’s ideas, not his character and motivations, for that is an ad hominem, and delicate souls such as himself just can’t stand that.

We all have our biases, beyond the purely ideological. We have our professional and personal biases, our vanities and even venalities.

All of us. There was only one saint in economics.


DG Lesvic April 17, 2011 at 4:40 am

In fact, if a Public Choice Theory about public officials, how about an Intellectual Choice Theory, about economists, and their personal interests, character, and motivations?

Randy April 17, 2011 at 7:25 am

Good point. But then, modern education systems are political systems. What’s really needed is free market learning and certification.

Daniel Kuehn April 17, 2011 at 7:32 am

The only thing that concerns me about this is that ideological positions ought to not affect scientific positions.

Clearly they do in some cases, which is why I think Dan Klein is right – it’s best to put it out in the open so that relationship can be scrutinized. But it’s unfortunate that that’s the case. It would be nice if economists were like biologists where ideology never came up because it was irrelevant. Many professors are like this. Many remain objective in class and their ideology never comes up. Many are objective but like to bring up their ideology in more applied discussions. It would be nice if more were like that.

Krishnan April 17, 2011 at 11:02 am

Biology teachers/professors who may believe that the world is 4000 (give or take) years old cannot deal with the relationship between DNA and protein sequences from different living beings and explain how life as we know has evolved (and still does) – I imagine students learning biology and about DNA/protein sequences may have difficulty accepting the fact that there is astonishing similarity in the genome sequences of living things/animals/ – Using both the similarity (and differences) and using certain statistical methods, one can infer “genetic distances” (for example) and calculate when the species diverged or changed – and THAT infuriates some – and dismiss much of today’s biology as “theories” and not “fact”

Justin P April 18, 2011 at 9:36 am

It would be nice if unicorns existed too, but wishing for it won’t make it so. I wouldn’t be so romantic about biologists if I were you. I had a few that let their ideology show back during my first BS. Of course back then I agreed with the ideology, but looking back it was pretty blatant especially when it came to genetic engineering and pharma.

Krishnan April 17, 2011 at 10:06 am

I remember an interview with Justice Scalia – He was asked about the Liberal Bias at Harvard Law school and how students should deal with it – particularly those that have an alternate view – He said – Do what you have to do to earn that grade and do not tick the professor off … (something like that) – once you are done, then you can express your opinions as you see fit

There is also a self selection process – I imagine that most who land up at Harvard (and Yale and Columbia for e.g.) are of the Liberal Mindset and I imagine the application process weeds out those that the committee finds “unacceptable”

I have read some absolute drivel written by professors of law at Harvard and Yale and Columbia using the cloak of the institutions they are in (just an opinion mind you, mine). The word contortions they have to use to show why for example Congress can do anything they want (as long as it is Liberal/Left wing) comes through again and again … We will see a flood of such when the Courts consider the legality of forcing everyone to buy something in order to be a citizen of the US.

E.G. April 17, 2011 at 12:48 pm

My experience with some Harvard professors has been different. So I guess they are heterogeneous too.

Krishnan April 17, 2011 at 10:53 am

What is perhaps worse is the bias in the “hard” sciences – there are often errors of omission (since errors of commission are far easier to detect and fix) – “Climate science” for example. If the professor were to state “I consider the use of fossil fuels to be dangerous to the world” and then try and make sense of the CO2 and temperature and climate and weather data – listeners are forewarned – they can try and look up alternate explanations …

The refusal to disown or disregard a theory because it conflicts with a political view is perhaps the most dangerous action of all … True scientists/engineers cannot disregard data that could contradict their own theories – but I know it happens – and the impression it can create on impressionable minds is terrible – tantamount to educational malpractice.

E.G. April 17, 2011 at 1:07 pm

I disagree with Klein. The professor’s ideological bend will either matter to some students, but will not matter to many others. For those to whom it matters, self-identification is not necessary. It becomes obvious in the very first class. These students typically have an ideological bend of themselves, and the moment someone proclaims in class that this or that is their ideology, walls go up. Furthermore, it places in the minds of these students some pre-conceptions of what the professor believes. It serves to break down lines of communication between the professor and students who are concerned about ideology. These students are also likely to self-select out of classes with such professors long before they know them; they will seek out the information of who believes in what, and avoid certain professors. I did this all the time.

For those students who don’t care as much, saying whether you are free market or Keynesian or whatever, will have little meaning and little value (assuming these aren’t econ students, but in some other discipline, who likely have no clue who Keynes or Hayek or Friedman were or what free markets are).

There’s little benefit to be gained, either way. Not to mention that the only ones who can afford to do this are tenured professors, and those who don’t care if they alienate 90% of their colleagues (if you happened to be a free-market person, in the typical college). So if you are in a like-minded institution (like GMU), then there’s little risk. If you’re elsewhere, your office gets moved to that temporary shed out back.

Brian Bedient April 17, 2011 at 4:19 pm

I took Professor Klein’s class on Adam Smith’s political economy last semester, and at one point early on he raised his hand and asked who in the class was a libertarian, and every hand went up without exception. I don’t think Klein would change his ideas on transparency if his audience had a broader mix of values, but I think they’d certainly become costlier to hold.

I’d venture so far as to say, actually, that almost everything a person says becomes more informative when you understand their core values, because that’s important context in many cases to understanding why people believe what they believe.

A more interesting question than whether professors should simply reveal their biases is whether they should be allowed to force students to parrot those biases on exams. I mentioned the Series 7 here last week – there is an ‘economics section’ on that exam in which I managed to get all the questions correct by putting down the exact opposite of what I actually believed. I had a professor start an introductory economics course once by passing out a quiz with true/false questions such as “minimum wages help workers as a whole” and “the Federal Reserve keeps inflation under control,” etc. He then spent the rest of the class period explaining why the 90% of my classmates who put down “true” answers were wrong about everything. Nobody walked out, but a lot of students felt they had been treated roughly, and that professor wound up with very low ratings on the website on which we all ranked professors. I wonder how I would have reacted had a professor done something like that, but against free-market thinking – probably very badly. I’m usually the first to walk out of a class when a professor wastes my time with something insulting – I think of myself as a paying customer entitled to a certain amount of respect for my time. I wouldn’t have let a professor present something like that as objective truth without fighting them about it, for certain, but doing that, of course, singles you out for punishment in grading.

It’s refreshing to hear a professor lay it all out and say “here are my values” but it gets horrifying for students when that sentence gets finished with “and your grade depends on how much you agree with them.”

indianajim April 17, 2011 at 11:10 pm

“…Nobody walked out, but a lot of students felt they had been treated roughly, and that professor wound up with very low ratings on the website on which we all ranked professors.”

Student opinions about professors are often inverse indicators of the quality of a course, particularly since it is often the case that then student feel roughly treated they give low evaluations. The unfortunate reality is that dishonestly inflated grades are too often awarded by professors in pursuit of high student rankings. Grade inflation is rampant in the American academy and the consequence all too often is that professors who give honest grades (course averages of C) are rated as poor by students who feel “roughly treated.” This is not the fault so much of the students as teachers in general who have fostered overinflated opinions of acumen amongst student bodies. An average performance in any of my classes will earn a student a C and no more. I suspect my students feel “roughly treated”; they often tell me that they are used to getting only grades of A or B in other classes. Many students I meet seem horrified when I tell them that course grade average is typically a C in the classes I teach; but again, I blame primarily blame professors who grade dishonestly for this.

Justin P April 18, 2011 at 10:00 am

I couldn’t agree with you more. I’m taking classes for a second BS in Business now and let me tell you, everything you just said is true.

indianajim April 18, 2011 at 10:09 am

Here is an example of what one student posted on Rate my Professor dot com about a class I taught (exactly to my point above):

“worst professor I’ve ever had. His tests are unreasonable. His expectations are unreasonable because his philosophy is you need to get beat up in his class in order to not get beat up in the world. This guy is ****ed up. Do not take a class with him as your prof. I’m forewarning you. I’m an “A” student and got a C- in one of his classes.”

John Galt April 18, 2011 at 12:48 am

Open & Transparent Comments on Klein, Daniel; posted to ratemyprofessor dot com // number of ratings 23 // average rating 3.0/5.0; easiness 2.6/5.0

*OOOPPPPPS, Definitely take his class if you wanna torture yourself~~ For the reason, just take his class.
*His tests are tough…
*VERY TOUGH!*]He has a very different style of teaching compared to all of the other Econ professors…
*all i have to say is that he has quiz everyday! And out class average was 55 so even though he curves class it self sucks. I Really don’t like this teacher
*He’s not a bad teacher, makes the lectures easy…but he definetely tries to shove his libertarian/conservative ideology down your throat.
*Very Interesting Lectures

indianajim April 18, 2011 at 9:47 am

Hey Galt,

You missed this one:

“What’s with all the bad reviews? Klein’s a pretty interesting guy and his lectures are far from boring. He’s not easy, but if you pay attention to his lectures and read the material he outlines in the syllabus, then you’ll do fine. Don’t miss out on a great professor because a few lazy people say he’s hard.”

and this one:

“He puts his lectures and notes online which really helps. He teaches for the full class and gives a 10pt quiz each day, but drops your lowest. His tests are pretty hard, but he has the best grading policy EVER. I really like him and would suggest taking his class to anyone.”

and this:

“Great lectures, and the class is based on the classic econ curve. Stay up on all readings, and go to class and you’ll do fine. Also available for office hours, as was the TA. Aggressive and active professor, open to others ideas. :)

and there were other “Good Quality” posts on the site.

BTW Galt: Have you seen the movie about you yet? If so what did you think?

John Galt April 20, 2011 at 7:34 pm

Glad to see I missed a lot of the comments. The one’s I found weren’t as laudatory as I would have expected but I decided to post them anyway to avoid experimenter’s bias.

I have seen it twice now. It somehow reminded me of Pierre Boulle’s iconic masterpiece Planet of the Apes. It’s got a very high 85% rating over on rottontomatoes based on 7400 individuals. Above all I am an individualist.
In her own words, I am the idealized man Ayn wanted to bear the children of. In objectivist reality man’s purpose is to specialize in a harmonious economy and pass on as much dna to future generations as he can. This means concurrently maximum quantity of offspring and optimal mate selection comix quality
7% of the genetic differences between two individuals can be attributed to the their racial difference, 8% to their tribe/nationality, and the remaining 85% is attributable to mere individual variation.
This is a how to novel for discovering your personal genetic raison d’etre.


James Hanley April 18, 2011 at 8:44 pm

As a political science prof who leans libertarian (although my views are rather more complex than that indicates, and I’m not much in line with Rand/Mises folks), I generally don’t let students know my political views except to announce that I am neither a Democrat nor a Republican because I have too many disagreements with each party. I think someone with a reasonably sophisticated understanding of political ideas would figure me out, but that excludes the vast majority of frosh who take my American Government class. And I’m comfortable doing it this way.

In my political economy class, which is a public choice theory class, students will get a better insight into my beliefs, but that’s only a small handful of students, and even there I’m careful to take turns mocking Democrats, Republicans, socialists and libertarians. God forbid I’d actually encourage, even inadvertently, any student to think in ideological terms.

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