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ECON 101 Teaches Humility

Here’s a letter to a new correspondent:

Mr. Jones:

Thanks for sharing your thoughts on my recent essay on the importance of Econ 101.

While I agree with much that you write, I plead guilty to your charge of “dulling students’ excitement about solving collective challenges through democratic governance.” In my opinion, too many people today – and especially young people – have far too much excitement about using the state to “solve” this and that “challenge,” both real and (as is frequently the case) illusory. Dulling this excitement, I boast, is one of the few truly productive acts that I perform.

The single greatest lesson conveyed by Econ 101, when taught well, is humility – the humility that comes from recognizing the reality of scarcity, the inescapability of trade-offs, the ubiquity of unintended consequences, and the puniness of the human mind compared to the unfathomable complexity of the details of social institutions generally and of competitive market processes in particular. And so while it’s not my goal in teaching Econ 101 to dull students’ excitement about solving collective challenges through democratic governance – my goal is nothing beyond teaching Econ 101 as well as I can – I recognize that this “dulling” outcome is indeed among the happy consequences of learning Econ 101.

The celebrated economist Jacob Viner said it well in a 1950 convocation address at Brown University: “A great part of true learning, in fact, takes the form of negative knowledge, of increasing awareness of the range and depth of our unconquered ignorance, and it is one of the major virtues of scholarship that only by means of it, one’s own or someone else’s, can one know when it is safe to dispense with it. Learned ignorance, therefore, is often praiseworthy, although ignorant learning … never is.”*

Donald J. Boudreaux
Professor of Economics
Martha and Nelson Getchell Chair for the Study of Free Market Capitalism at the Mercatus Center
George Mason University
Fairfax, VA 22030

* Jacob Viner, “A Modest Proposal for Some Stress on Scholarship in Graduate Training,” reprinted in Douglas A. Irwin, ed., Jacob Viner: Essays on the Intellectual History of Economics (1991), pages 385-386.


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