Brendan Nyhan: Wall Street Journal Dissembles on Status of the Poor
Marginal Notes Triggered by the U.C. Davis Seminar on Historical Scholarship and New Media

A Warning to Slacker Lecturers Everywhere!

Robert Solow has waited sixty years to tell us how bad a lecturer Joseph Schumpeter was:

I knew Joseph Schumpeter only in the last five years of his life, from 1945 until his death in 1950, at the age of sixty-six. To say that I knew him is actually a bit of an exaggeration. 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...

Readers, beware! Before you slack off on your lecture preparation, or indulge your vanity, first think hard about what future prominent Nobel Prize winners might be sitting in your courses even now!

(But Solow goes on to write that he wished he had known an earlier Schumpeter:

In 1940... a letter urging [Schumpeter] to stay [at Harvard]... urgent, heartfelt, and mind-felt... signed by twenty-six junior faculty and advanced graduate students. The authors included the flower not only of Harvard-trained economists of that time, but of the future of American economics. You have to admire the man who evoked those words from those people. I wish I had known him then. It is to Schumpeter's eternal credit that, at a time when mediocrity often cottoned to mediocrity in Harvard economics, he stood always for intellectual quality and energy, regardless of ideology, ethnicity, or social position. McCraw makes this very clear, and understands its importance...)