Critical Thinking Doesn't Spontaneously Grow

When we couldn't name the country in which the battle of Waterloo was fought, our professor really groaned. We knew it was Napoleon versus somebody else, could kind of guess the century, but when he told us it didn't take place in France, we were stuck. "Belgium," our professor finally scoffed, crushed by our inability to contextualize in a course called the "history of economic thought." In his mind, we couldn't see the bigger picture.

To help us navigate this labyrinthine past, our professor had chosen Mark Skousen's "The Making of Modern Economics," which casually introduced the field's most distinguished scholars, starting with a hagiographic chapter on Adam Smith. When we got to the chapter on Marx, though, the tone shifted. In the first 18 pages, we discovered his "fanaticism," how he "is cursed with a black mark in history," his religious duplicity, anti-Semitism, Satanic verses, interest in suicide, illegitimate son, obsession with phrenology, and slovenly long beard.

A little uncomfortable, I emailed the professor. I said that even though I mostly agreed with Skousen's viewpoint, his constant free-market evangelizing was sloppy scholarship. The following day, the professor whispered "nice note" to me as he passed out scantrons. After our quiz, we watched a documentary about shock therapy in Latin America. At the end, I raised my hand. "Don't you think it's a problem that Milton Friedman helped legitimize the Pinochet regime?" I asked. The professor paused. "Do you know Sartre?" he responded.


"You don't know Sartre?"

"No, I don't."

"Wow, you don't know Sartre. Well, he would say that as soon as you enter politics, your hands are dirty." Class dismissed.

It got worse. In the chapter on Keynes, Skousen included an information box: "The Truth about Keynes's Homosexuality." Why such a digression was relevant in an economics textbook was puzzling enough, but Skousen doubled down when he wrote that "Keynes's sexual proclivities may have been influenced by his family life (overprotective mother, weak father). . . and the collegiate ideas of G.E. Moore, who preached a disregard for morals and universal rules of conduct." This was not a single politically incorrect term, but rather a showcase of discredited and offensive ideas in the second edition of a book published in 2009. I sent another email urging the professor to choose a new book. He agreed that it was bigotry but told me that "what is outdated to you is not outdated to others."

My professor's indifference was especially troubling considering how historically unwelcoming the field of economics has been. A staple of the subject's lexicon is the battle of the sexes, a game-theory matrix in which the husband gains utility only from watching football and the wife only from watching opera. In a course where we learned about women only when they were the supportive wives of more successful men, we also used a textbook that asks if Thomas Malthus was "anti-female," presents compelling proof he was, and then says, "All this is circumstantial evidence. ... After all, Malthus was happily married."

If the professor had used Skousen as a wedge to discuss discrimination in academia, in the ways that narrow-mindedness affects the progression of ideas, I would have commended the textbook. He didn't. Instead, in his lecture, the professor mentioned only that Keynes' friends were "surprised" when he married Lydia Lopokova.

Context is important. Facts are important. But they're prerequisites for learning — not learning itself. And when the facts are disputed, they should not be replaced with more facts. If critical thinking demands anything from us, it's that the truth be open for debate. Yet in a class about the genesis of groundbreaking ideas, we were never required to write one word, not even to answer an essay question on the multiple-choice exams.

Skousen's textbook obviously undermines the ideal of diversity, a word that's slapped onto syllabi and shouted from the rooftops. But more importantly, critical thinking doesn't spontaneously grow from dates and names. It comes from practice. I know that the Seventh Coalition defeated the French at Waterloo on June 18th, 1815. Yet the question stills remains: Was Napoleon anti-female?