In 2009, the Charles G. Koch Foundation invited me to submit a proposal for funding a course on economics and liberty. I teach at the Stillman School of Business at Seton Hall University, and the opportunity appealed to me.
My goal would be to get students at Stillman and Seton Hall’s Whitehead School of Diplomacy to apply economics to real-life issues and analyze these issues in terms of liberty. But how? I thought back to two points in my life where I was fully engaged in sharing economic ideas. The first was a small conference at a guest ranch in the Montana Rockies. Two organizations, the Property and Environment Research Center (PERC) and Liberty Fund, brought together a diverse group of participants to discuss how markets can protect the environment.
Second in line were the lunchtime discussions with colleagues during my graduate work at Clemson University. Although I learned a lot in the classroom at both Clemson and my undergraduate institution, Westminster College in Pennsylvania, the discussions that occurred over lunch and in a seminar environment enabled me to apply knowledge learned in the classroom.
Those two experiences were the foundation of my proposal for this new class. It was going to be for students who already had a grounding in economics; it would be conversational; and it would include lunch. Economics and Liberty is a discussion course on political economy or “topics that matter”: the education system, taxes, the environment, the Federal Reserve, and other current topics. My goal is to get the students to see how the tools they have learned apply to everything around them.
Of course, I made sure that I had the backing of the school. Seton Hall is a private Catholic school in northern New Jersey with approximately 5,000 undergraduates. As a faculty member in business school, I sought support from the dean. Not only was she supportive of the course, along with the department of economics and legal studies she worked it into the curriculum as a three-credit course that students could take as an economics elective.
To make this course work—it would have no lectures, just discussion—I limited the enrollment to 15 (it actually ended up smaller than that). Each student had to complete a short application, whose instructions noted that it was a reading-intensive course with four-to-five scholarly articles to be read each week (a requirement that caused some students to change their minds). It also ensured that they had the economics background suitable for this type of course. The class is offered mid-day on Fridays, at a school that tends to avoid Friday classes. Between the requirements of the application and the sacrifice of a Friday afternoon, I filled the course with top-notch students.
The papers for each class meeting ranged from Adam Smith and F. A. Hayek to Bruce Yandle’s theory on bootleggers and Baptists; but the material was not limited to peer-reviewed journal articles. Students read news articles, books, and listened to other media outlets (such as EconTalk with Russ Roberts at www.econtalk.org).
To make sure that students did the readings, I gave them blank pages with the title of each of the next week’s papers at the top. They were expected to fill these pages and bring them back the following week. Their notes helped them contribute to class discussion. They turned their notes in at the end of class to get a homework grade, which was given primarily for doing the reading and showing personal interpretations of the readings. Final grades were based on homework, classroom participation, and exams based on the readings and discussions. Those three grade components ensured that students were adequately prepared for class each week.
My role was as air traffic controller. I was there to guide the conversation and occasionally spur the dialogue if it slowed. Throughout the course I invited other Seton Hall faculty as well as outside guests to join the conversation—but not to give lectures. Thanks to the grant, faculty guests received an honorarium. Last semester four outside economists participated: James Otteson, Ph.D., of Yeshiva University, an expert on Adam Smith; Angela Dills, Ph.D., of Providence College, an expert on education and crime; Patrick McLaughlin, Ph.D., of the Department of Transportation, an expert on environmental economics; and Bruce Yandle, Ph.D., of Clemson University, an expert on the political economy.
The course ran from 10:00 am to 1:00 pm, and we took a break and ate lunch together around 11:30. (Lunch was delivered to the classroom.) As people began eating, small conversations would break out. Most covered campus life, but occasionally the students continued talking about the readings and how they related to other aspects of their lives.
The success of this class depended on the willingness of students to prepare thoroughly and to discuss ideas in class. Having lunch in class created a level of comfort with these students that I have not been able to obtain in a “normal” course.
The students explicitly stated that this was one of the best courses they have ever taken and that it changed the way they look at the world. And there is some outside evidence, too. This was the first time I offered the course and I had eight students. Of those eight, one had been thinking of pursuing a Ph.D. in economics; four additional students have started, or applied to, Ph.D. programs as well. I have also written four papers with four different students from this class; two are working papers and two have been accepted for publication. The enthusiasm of these students and their desire to continue learning about economics and liberty were simply amazing.
On the whole this course was unlike anything I have taught in the past and an overall success. I urge other faculty to follow my lead. If you have any questions, please feel free to contact me at Rotthoff@gmail.com.