May 24, 2007
Schumpeter as Teacher
Posted by Gordon Smith

Thomas McGraw's new biography, Prophet of Innovation: Joseph Schumpeter and Creative Destruction, portrays Schumpeter as a legendary teacher. This is one of many similar passages:

Each morning, after the elaborate ritual of dressing himself, Schumpeter would walk the six blocks from Taussig's house to Harvard Yard. At precisely the appointed hour, he would make his entrance into a filled classroom, then remove his trademark topcoat, fedora, and gloves -- "slowly, finger by finger, as everyone watched," a student recalled. "It was all very dramatic." Next, Schumpeter would write something on the blackboard, then whirl around and begin his lecture. Speaking in an aristocratic Viennese accent, he gave the impression of complete spontaneity, even though he prepared every class with meticulous care. Using no notes, he dazzled students with his erudition....

Without missing a beat in these discussions, Schumpeter often jotted some new thought onto a scrap  of paper, which he then thrust into his pocket. Students noticed that he was their only teacher who came to class with no written materials at all but left with jacket and trousers stuffed with messages. Both in class and out, he scrawled these notes to himself compulsively. He even scissored incoming letters into small squares to feed his need for more scraps of paper....

Very few professors relish both teaching and writing, and only a tiny fraction excel in both arenas. But Schumpeter did. He published literally millions of words, all the while remaining an unforgettable performer at the podium -- the most entertaining of teachers and also the most accessible. He required heavy reading assignments but dispensed abundant A's. In his official reports about graduate students, he found something favorable to say about almost everyone.

In his TNR review of the book, Robert Solow offers quite a different portrait of Schumpeter the teacher:

First as a returning undergraduate and then as a doctoral student in economics at Harvard, I attended his courses on advanced economic theory and the history of economic thought. The theory lectures bordered on incoherent; they alluded to everything but analyzed nothing. He would say: "Of course you know about X or Y, so I do not have to go into detail." But we didn't know about X or Y, as he must have realized. The history lectures were also disappointing. I do not remember where they began, but at the end of the term they had barely reached Adam Smith. The course felt like a stage display of multilingual erudition.

More generally, Schumpeter seemed to be playing the role of grand seigneur, and he tended to flatter where flattery was not due, no doubt satirically. All this went along with his reputation as a casual and easy grader. We used to say that he threw the exam books up a staircase: the ones that stuck at the top got an A, the ones that fell to the bottom an A minus. I was surprised to learn that in Austrian universities he had the reputation of a stern taskmaster.


McCraw may have been misled because Schumpeter's style was always flamboyant, entertaining, and exotic, and many students enjoyed the spectacle. Maybe it is just as well to slide over Schumpeter's failings at the end. He was past his peak; and the economics profession was moving in a direction--rigorous theory couched in mathematical terms--that he had always professed to admire but simply could not practice himself.

Hmm. It's easier to believe Solow, since he is offering a first-hand account. And then there is the fact that McGraw's version of Schumpeter sounds otherworldly, not because great teaching and great scholarship are incompatible, but because excessive quirkiness typically does not produce great results in the classroom. I have had my share of quirky professors, but they were usually more entertaining than insightful or inspiring.

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