Don't Want a Robot to Replace You? Start Reading Literature
Editor's Note: This post originally appeared on the blog of the Institute for New Economic Thinking.
Morton Schapiro, president of Northwestern University, is an economist. Gary Saul Morson, his colleague, does close readings of Tolstoy. Together they teach a course on what economists can learn from the humanities and have co-authored a book, Cents and Sensibility, on the same theme. In the following conversation, they offer insights on how students can get ahead in the job market, what universities are for and why economists should read great novels.
Lynn Parramore: You argue that economists need to know what makes human beings tick and they need to understand ethics, culture and narrative. Why do you feel so strongly about this?
Morton Schapiro: Economists do a good job applying our theories and tools to subjects that are normally associated with other fields, such as the cycle of poverty, individual behavior, and so on. But there’s evidence in citations and surveys that economists approach other fields in a more imperialistic way than they probably should. Saul points out that there’s an idea that other fields have the great questions and economists have the all the answers. Economics brings a lot to these other fields, but these other fields could bring a lot more to economics. One that’s far-flung from what economists usually think of as a basis for useful knowledge is literature.
Saul Morson: Some things can only be explained by stories, like great novels. Ethical questions can be endlessly complex, which is a central theme of great authors like George Eliot. The realistic model of people you get in literature is a lot closer to what people really are like than what you often find in economics.
By the very nature of needing to mathematicize their theories, economists can’t account for some things. You can’t mathematicize culture. A lot of theories covertly smuggle in certain cultural assumptions, like the notion that everybody is like an American. But everybody is not. What looks like an economic model turns out to be a cultural model, and cultures really do differ.
LP: Why is studying literature and culture crucial to the undergraduate experience?
SM: I really believe in the liberal arts education that American colleges specialize in. In most places, education at the advanced level is purely in a single discipline. But in America, you take classes in different fields. Each field is not just different subject matter—it’s a different way of understanding the world.
Literature is particularly important because you identify with people very much unlike yourself, from different cultures, genders, backgrounds. You learn to empathize and get out of the natural narrowness and egoism of thinking everybody is like yourself. You get constant practice at it. There’s no way to read Tolstoy without extending empathy on page after page with one character or another. You learn to turn your critical intelligence on your own favorite assumptions. That’s what higher education needs to include.
LP: We often hear people say that schools should be run more like businesses. What’s your view?
MS: It’s very tempting to use economic theory and modeling to make something more like a business. But what might work in the for-profit sector isn’t necessarily the right thing to do in the not-for-profit sector.
Take enrollment management, for example. This developed over the last 20 to 25 years in response to calls for efficiency. One of the most basic tools is a practice called “yield protection,” where you look at your spring applicant pool and predict the probability that applicants will come if admitted. It’s fine to use it as a way to figure out the proper size of the class or to get an early reading on your financial aid budget. But say you’re a highly qualified student and you’re only predicted to have a ten percent chance of coming. The school may reject you or put you on the waitlist because you didn’t show interest in the school by going on the tour or buying a sweatshirt at the bookstore.
LP: Schools might like to admit a small number from the applicant pool to appear more selective, right? They want to stay competitive in the marketplace by showing a low admission rate.
MS: Yes. But rejecting a highly qualified student based on yield protection raises ethical questions. Is it fair? Is it transparent? Ethical questions particularly arise if you allocate your financial aid discounts this way. There’s evidence that some schools do. The economic perspective loses sight of the ethical concerns.
LP: As state subsidies to public education have decreased, the burden of costs has been shifting to students. If you were taking on debt, wouldn’t studying the humanities be a risky prospect for your future?
MS: Human capital skills really pay off in the labor force. If you’re worried about artificial intelligence, automation, robotics, outsourcing to cheaper providers in Hyderabad or other places, you’d better be able to understand people.
I’m a labor economist and I talk about forecasting what human capital skills are going to pay off in 10 years. Narrow technical training is becoming rapidly less valued in the marketplace. Understanding people, being culturally sensitive—those are the things that are going to keep you employed. Having only narrow technical skills is just a recipe to be outsourced.
I’m optimistic about the advantages to studying the humanities in the labor force, but I’m not as optimistic that we’re always going to teach the humanities in a way that inspires people. When you look at the number of humanities degrees as a percentage, it continues to fall. I think it’s going to level off and increase—maybe that’s because I have a blind confidence in humanists’ ability to provide the human capital sensitivity skills we’re talking about. Saul is less optimistic that humanists are going to approach these topics in the best way.
SM: Appreciating great literature and understanding other people can seem so old-fashioned. People say, no, we’ve got to replace it with something hard and scientific. Some say there’s no such thing as great literature. These ways of thinking haven’t completely taken over, but people who teach it the way I do are in a minority and defensive. Anything that sounds scientific or technically advanced, like “digital humanities” or “sociobiological humanities” is in vogue.
LP: What are some of the dangers of producing a lot of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) graduates who don’t have much exposure to the humanities?
SM: When people study technology, you don’t want them just memorizing things. You want them to have a sense of play and creativity. Things that art and poetry bring. Remember, they’re designing things for people. So what’s their view of humans? Even to do applied science, you need a sense of who people are and a sense of creativity.
LP: Undergraduates interested in economics may argue that they have to focus on math if they want to get into a good graduate program or land a good job. How does studying literature help them?
MS: You could differentiate your application a little bit by having other skills. Somebody says, Well, I want to work in China. OK, read Chinese literature, history, art, music, and language. That makes you a little different. You become a more thoughtful economist if you don’t have this very narrow view that economics in only about things you can mathematicize and model.
In the class we teach, Saul and I have 71 students. Half are econ majors and half are typically humanists or qualitative social science majors. We’re trying to argue that for the latter group, the rigor and tools of economics can really help you understand the world. To the former group, the econ/math folks, we say, ok, your field can take you to 80 percent of the solution to a problem. But 80 percent of the solution is the wrong solution!
Think about what happened when we put sanctions a number of years ago on Russia and made it more expensive for them to import foreign goods. Whenever you do that to Iran or North Korea, usually the food prices go up. They try to figure out cheap substitutes, they do workarounds.
That’s not what Putin did. He doubled down and said, OK, we’ll make the goods from Western Europe even more expensive. Economists were like, what? But that would be no surprise if you read Russian literature. The idea that a state exists in order to make people happy, which people in the West take for granted — it’s beyond weird to Russians. People come and go, but Russia remains. Russia is what matters. You offend the national dignity of the Russians, then that becomes the issue, not the price of the good.
LP: Let’s look at some other real-world problems. What about the undermatching problem, where top students from low-income schools usually don’t end up at the top universities: How does literature help make sense of this?
MS: Economists might ask if it’s about price. But no, if top students are really low income, they can go to Penn or Columbia often for little money, even for free. There’s something else going on, but economics won’t tell you what it is.
SM: Great novels tell you that people don’t enjoy feeling culturally out of place. That’s no surprise if you’ve read Great Expectations or a Henry James novel, where a person from the provinces comes to the capital and is looked down upon. It’s an old and a standard novelistic theme. People of a different social class don’t just have less money: they have a different culture.
MS: Once you realize this, you do things like keeping the dorms open during a break because the less affluent kids aren’t going down to Cancun or can’t even go home. You provide access to clothing in a way that doesn’t embarrass the student. During the application process, you don’t send a counselor who went to Hotchkiss to an inner city school. You send a kid with a similar kind of background who can talk honestly about what it’s like. It’s not enough to tell students that going to a highly selective school opens up tremendous financial and social opportunities. We have to create structures to make them feel like they belong.
LP: I’m sure you’re familiar with the database created by Raj Chetty, Emmanuel Saez and others that tracks upward mobility at American colleges and universities and illustrates how uncommon it is becoming for poor students to attend top schools. Northwestern students have an average family income of around $170,000, which is pretty high. What’s being done to make it more accessible to less affluent students?
MS: I would say two things. If you go back to that database to see the percentage of students who enrolled in Northwestern who were born in 1980 and who moved from the bottom quintile to the top by 2013, it’s actually 55 percent. That’s pretty notable. We were 18th of the 65 schools in income mobility from the bottom to the top. But as you pointed out correctly, the chances of getting in to any of these schools if you’re from the bottom 20 percent are low. (Raj puts the family income at below $21,000 there, which is pretty small.)
This year’s entering class at Northwestern is 19 percent Pell eligible and next year I expect us to cross the 20 percent, which is going in the right direction [Federal Pell Grants are usually awarded to students whose families make less than $30,000 annually]. If you look at the highly selective private universities, we’re second only to Princeton in that area. We’ve invested heavily in trying to do that. I’m not saying that we’re this great force to equalize American income distribution — not with only 8,000 undergrads — but these undergrads are very different than those we enrolled when I got here nine years ago.
To get this right, you’d better have very generous financial aid packages. You have to send your admissions counselors to the right schools. Part of it is that we get a lot of publicity that we’re trying to change. Part of it is about really improving the experience of less affluent students when they get here. We’re being a lot more proactive in anticipating their needs. When we send Pell kids back to their own schools or similar ones, they can now say, hey, it’s not perfect but it’s getting better so you should think of coming here. You don’t have to be one of the two out of three students who undermatch after doing brilliantly in high school.
LP: Some economists who have recently made an impact—Thomas Piketty comes to mind—seem to be embracing the idea that literature has important things to teach them. Are you noticing a trend?
MS: I don’t know if that explains why Piketty sold a million and a half in hardcover, but yes, we have noted that. Take Robert Shiller, a Nobel Prize winner. He talks about “narrative economics.” That’s less about learning from Chekov than trying to incorporate stories into understanding human behavior. It’s the idea that you can get some ability to forecast how people are going to behave when you listen to their own stories about what they’re feeling.
In economics, you don’t really ask people. People reveal their underlying desires by their reaction to changes in income and prices. Shiller says no, that’s not enough. Sometimes there’s hysteria over something out there, like cryptocurrency. You can learn about things that really move markets by looking at what people read and listening to what they say. They’re not the first, but it’s notable that people with the position and prestige of Shiller or George Akerlof are talking about this. It’s going mainstream. Whether it’s great novels or people's stories, it’s a movement away from traditional narrowly based neoclassical economics.