De mortuis nil nisi bonum

In a posthumous tribute to one of my late university lecturers, I read:

His [name of university] years were characterised by his love and enthusiasm for teaching.  His dedication to his students was reciprocated in their affection for him. The large Economics I classes that he taught (numbering in some cases up to 400 students) were legendary.”

Although I would prefer not to speak ill of the dead, these words are a distortion of the historical truth, or at the least, very incomplete.   The lecturer concerned was certainly legendary, but mostly for his vituperative disdain for anyone who did not share his extreme monetarist and so-called “economic rationalist” views. It is true that I did not know ALL of my fellow economics students, but of the score or so I did know, no one I knew felt they received any affection from him, nor did they reciprocate any. Indeed, those of us also studying pure mathematics thought him innumerate. He once told us, in a thorough misunderstanding of mathematical induction, that any claim involving an unspecified natural number n which was true for n=1, n=2, and n=3 was usually true, more generally, for all n. What about the claim that “n is a natural number less than 4“, I wondered.

As I recall, his lectures mostly consisted of declamations of monetarist mumbo-jumbo, straight from some University of Chicago seminar, given along with scorn for any alternative views, particularly Keynesianism. But he was also rudely disdainful of any viewpoint, such as many religious views, that saw value in social equity and fairness. Anyone who questioned his repeated assertions that all human actions were always and everywhere motivated by self-interest was rebuked as naive or ignorant.

In addition to the declamatory utterance of such tendentious statements, his lectures and lecture slides included very general statements marked, “Theorem“, followed by words and diagrams marked, “Proof“. A classic example of a “Theorem” was “Any government intervention in an economy leads to a fall in national income.” His proof of this very large claim began with the words, “Consider a two-person economy into which a government enters . . . ” The mathematicians in the class objected strongly that, at best, this was an example, not a proof, of his general claim. But he shouted us down. Either he was ignorant of the simplest forms of mathematical reasoning, or an ideologue seeking to impose his ideology on the class (or perhaps both).

I remained sufficiently angry about this perversion of my ideal of an academic discipline that I later wrote an article for the student newspaper about the intellectual and political compromises that intelligent, numerate, rational, or politically-engaged students would need to make in order to pass his course. That such a lecturer should be remembered as an admirable teacher is a great shame.

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