Suppose you are teaching a class in macroeconomics. You’ve decided you want the students to understand the differences between Keynesians and Austrians by looking at how these two schools approach the Great Depression and the 2008 Financial Crisis. Though it’s a simplification, you are trying to teach them how to make up their minds about the truth or falsity of simple propositions like this:
- The Great Depression was caused by the monetary policy of the Federal Reserve.
- The Financial Crisis was caused by the deregulation of the financial sector.
If you’re an economist, you can probably come up with better propositions. But notice that if these propositions are false, then the following are true:
- The Great Depression was not caused by the monetary policy of the Federal Reserve.
- The Financial Crisis was not caused by the deregulation of the financial sector.
Or you might say that it’s not as simple as that. Faced with the first two propositions, your response might be to say
- The Great Depression was not caused by the monetary policy of the Federal Reserve alone.
- The deregulation of the financial sector was not the sole cause of the Financial Crisis.
Knowing something about economics means understanding these propositions well enough to form an opinion about their truth. This is why I say that being “knowledgeable” means having the ability to make up your mind about something. That is the ability you are trying to help your students develop. It’s an ability that you, as their economics teacher, presumably have. Indeed, I would encourage you not to teach material to students that you are not able to make up your own mind about. In whatever subject you propose to instruct them, they should be in the presence of a master.
It should be obvious that, in the scenario I’m imagining, you would assign the students readings by Keynesians and Austrians and, perhaps, some neutral or “secondary” literature that merely summarizes their disputes. No matter where you are in the syllabus, however, no matter how much reading they’ve been asked to do, you can ask them to “make up their minds”. You can, in principle, ask them to do this based on their background knowledge on the first day of class (perhaps this is a graduate level course and you’re expecting them to know something about these topics already). And you can then tell them to write you a five paragraph essay of no more than 1000 words that states their position. The essay question might read, simply,
- “The Great Depression was caused by the monetary policy of the Federal Reserve.” Discuss.
Many students and teachers these days are likely to roll their eyes at this task. I understand why students don’t like to be put on the spot like this, but I don’t see why teachers can’t see the value of doing it — indeed, of doing it often. This is the most natural and ordinary sort of task to assign students of any subject: articulate a claim about which there is (or merely has been) some discussion within the discipline and ask the students to engage in that discussion, to demonstrate an awareness of what is at stake and then to state their own view on the matter. Within any discipline, after all, there are countless issues on which it is reasonable to demand that scholars take a position. (A macroeconomist who has no position on the causes of the Great Depression isn’t much of one, I would think. Or maybe the field is more specialized these days than I think?)
As I said yesterday, I want to defend not just the idea of holding ordinary opinions within a discipline but writing ordinary prose about them. My essay assignment here would require them to motivate the need to take a position and take one themselves (§1), come up with three reasons for the position they’ve taken (§§2-4), and indicate the broader consequences of the view they have defended (§5). Let me conclude this post by looking at the first of these tasks, which will correspond to writing the first paragraph of the five-paragraph essay.
Suppose the student has decided, on the advice of Milton Friedman perhaps, that the Great Depression was caused by the monetary policy of the Federal Reserve. I would recommend, then, that they articulate their key sentence provisionally as “I will here argue that the Great Depression was caused by the monetary policy of the Federal Reserve.” In a longer essay, this might appear as the first sentence of the third paragraph, but in a five-paragraph essay I would recommend placing it roughly in the middle of the first paragraph. (For those who are already irritated by the “non-classical” self-referential “signposting” of “I will here argue…”, I’m going to offer an alternative at the the end.) The first half the paragraph will then lead up to it with one or two sentences about the Great Depression itself and another one or two about the search for causes by economists. The second half (after the key sentence asserts your major thesis) will detail the thesis in three smaller points (that add up to the major thesis) and perhaps indicate, in a single sentence, the importance of understanding monetary policy to be the cause. In any case, the paragraph will consist of at least six sentences (2-4 before the key sentence, and 2-4 afterwards) and at most 200 words.
If you don’t like the phrase “I will here argue” (or worse, “In this essay, I will show that…”), I sympathize. It violates what Thomas and Turner call “classic style”. I think it is acceptable in novice writing, and certainly in longer articles in the social sciences, but it’s true that doing without it often produces a better text, a stronger style. In this case, I would recommend trying to rewrite the paragraph so that the key sentence in the middle now becomes simply “But the Great Depression was caused by the monetary policy of the Federal Reserve.” Notice how much that “but” requires of the preceding three or four sentences. They must create a space in which our assertion about the Fed can establish an interesting rhetorical tension. Tomorrow I’ll construct examples of these two ways of writing the first paragraph.