On the Nature of Classroom Disagreement: Part I / by Todd Yarbrough


I plan on a few posts about classroom disagreement, specifically in my annual environmental economics course.

When I was a graduate student I was often tasked with teaching one course each semester and every summer. I was lucky enough to teach a broad range of classes from principles to monetary to game theory. In most classes that I've taught there is little in the way of consternation between me and the student. Because most of the topics in most of these classes fall along a positivist view of economics, that is asking questions about the states of the world without applying value judgement to these states, little occurs in the way of political or even economic debate. You may get the once in a while anti-regulation vs. regulation or anti-tax vs. tax debate, but for the most part economics manages to tow the line of avoiding political intrigue. 

However, this has almost never been the case each and every time that I have taught an environmental economics course. Environmental economics is a sub-discipline of the microeconomics branch of economics. It's chief concern is the analysis of so-called market failures that lead to inefficient environmental degradation and resource exploitation. It is necessary for us to draw value judgments in this course with respect to the value of a not-as-of-yet cut down forest or a healthy fishery, in a way that you don't while discussing a 10 year treasury bond price. At the heart of environmental economics is a friction between a more ecological view, based on a self-extinction premise, and a more economic view, based on the ability of markets to spread welfare. Environmental economics ends up falling somewhere in between, with the specific flavor of the class defined by the instructor's view of the discipline. It is within this middle ground where I find something most curious occurs.

The first time that I taught an environmental economics course I was at the University of Tennessee and in graduate school. I was taking field courses in environmental economics and had an interest in teaching the course post-PhD. The class, as is the case with almost all environmental economics classes, was mostly economics majors plus some significant number of environmental studies majors (taking the course as a requirement). My understanding of economics at this point was most largely guided by my first two years of graduate school, where I saw the simple and beautiful world of undergraduate economics be completely uprooted and tossed aside for a more rigorous, nuanced, and technical approach. I believe that this first class reflected this, and I went into the course expecting that I would show students fanciful equations every day and we'd agree that some policy was at least economically preferred to some other policy. This is how I saw economics at the time, autocratic.

I was quite surprised to find out that a large majority of the economics majors largely considered environmental protection to be a waste of time. Again, the undergraduate economics world is simple and pretty, and like moths to a campfire students were quick to offer up libertarianesque arguments in favor of allowing the free market to "handle" environmental protection. This of course ignores the entire purpose of the course, which is to analyze where markets FAIL, where we don't have reason to believe that a free market would efficiently allocate resources while also protecting the environment. We as humans have shown ourselves time and time again willing to over-consume and over-produce despite such warning signs as increases in diabetes rates, food insecurity, and climate change instability. The more environmentally minded students in the course were somewhat pushed aside. Their evals would later show that they had greatly enjoyed the class and appreciated the environmental economics viewpoint, while the econ majors seemed to get hung up on the implications of the course, how it tried to invalidate part of their world view. Overall, I found the environmental students to be open minded, while the econ majors were not.

I got my first gig out of graduate school at Aquinas College, a small liberal arts college in Michigan. I was hired primarily to teach environmental economics, both for economics majors as well as for sustainable business students (AQ was the first college to have a sustainable business program). Because expectations are set by past experiences, I felt that I would spend my time defending regulation, taxes, and other forms of environmental protection to a group of students who believed in the cult of personality that is the free market. Partly because the economics department lacked majors and because the sustainable business department had many majors, there were far more SB majors than Econ majors. The experience was nearly the opposite. Econ majors appeared opened minded to the idea that markets could fail and greatly appreciated the focus on cost effectiveness of environmental policy. SB majors were not so open minded, bringing to the classroom a sense that they already knew how issues should be solved (most of their solutions involved folks just acting more sustainably). And just like the econ majors did at UT, SB majors would often take the class in their direction and sort of forget that economics was the name of the game. Here I found the econ majors to be open minded, while the SB majors were not. 

I'm not exactly sure what drove this divergence between classes other than the disparity between majors. Were econ students more likely to believe in free markets if they were largely surrounded by other econ majors? Were econ students less likely to believe in free markets if they were largely surrounded by non-econ majors? Were students in the south less willing to accept weaknesses of the free market model, while mid-western students more willing? And why did the majority of students in both classes assert a sort of disdainful view of "some other side" of the topic-area? 

I recently left AQ and am now at Pace University in New York City. Here, I'm back into a situation where the majority of my environmental economics courses are econ majors, with some environmental studies students. I'm not sure how the class will go, but I can tell you that I've already experienced the following statements from students: 1) "I just think that the environment is there to be used by the market and if we trust the market generally why not also with respect to the environment?" and 2) "I just think that we should tear capitalism down". So, this should be fun!