Microeconomics using "The Grapes of Wrath"
Stephen Ziliak, Trustee and Professor of Economics at Roosevelt University-Chicago and a member of the INET Curriculum Committee Task Force, teaches introductory microeconomics using The Grapes of Wrath (1939). Here is the syllabus.
The Grapes of Wrath was published by its author, John Steinbeck, in 1939, during the worst economic crisis in American and world history. Set in and written during the Great Depression, The Grapes of Wrath is a bluesy road-novel with a lot of social and economic theory and analysis. It follows a family of homeless and landless tenant farmers from Oklahoma—the Joads—who’ve been forced on account of foreclosure to leave the farm and land which they labored and lived on for several generations.
Forced by a large bank and absentee owners to leave their home, the Midwestern farmers with little education and no income join other displaced workers on the road to California, in search of jobs, food, and housing—a piece of the American Dream.
Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel was for many years censored and banned by governments and school boards made uncomfortable by the novel’s detailed portrayal of economic inequality, hardship, and oppression.
We asked Stephen Ziliak to share his experience teaching The Grapes of Wrath, which he has used since 1996 to form the basis of his intro economics course.
Q: Why, Professor Ziliak, way back in 1996, did you begin to teach to introductory economics students The Grapes of Wrath?
A: I guess my first response is that I eschewed in my own research the one-voiced, monological approach of conventional neoclassical economics. Trained as an economic historian, I’m an amateur poet who had also worked as a welfare and food stamp caseworker in the county welfare department, going door-to-door in the poorest neighborhoods of Indianapolis. When I became an Assistant Professor of Economics, in 1996, I was searching for a teaching method that would open up the conversation to a wider, more realistic set of issues. It only seemed fair to me: given that I myself had philosophical objections to the conventional approach to teaching utilitarian economics, it hardly seemed right to force-feed my students. Plus, many of my students came from working class families but they’d never experienced a recession. I wanted them to know that growth and bubbles do not last forever.
Q: Why teach The Grapes of Wrath and not some other novel?
A: Good question. First and foremost, it’s an incredibly moving novel that—I openly admit—continues to make me laugh and cry. Now laughing and crying are not necessary for good pedagogy. But it seems to me that if a fact-based story about economic history can make a grown man and professor of economics cry, it must have something important to say. The visible hand of class conflict needs to be aired and this novel does it.
Q: You said fact-based. What do you mean—it’s a novel, it’s fiction, yes?
A: Yes, but it’s historical fiction—meaning that Steinbeck, like Hugo, Zola, and others before him, was deliberately depicting real and felt experiences. There are exaggerations and omissions of fact, true—as economic historians and English professors know full well. But in fact, Steinbeck himself spent a year or more working and studying inside of the same temporary labor camps that the fictional Joad family experienced in California.
Q: How do students react? Can you share some insights from the teacher perspective?
A: Really well, eventually. Some are defensive at first, being trained to believe that stories are for novelists and theory for scientists. Still others have been so deeply entrenched with what I call the banking approach to learning—regurgitating facts and equations—they’re afraid of dialogue and a plurality of voices and interpretation. But students tell me it’s one of those life-changing courses.
Q: What about the “quants”? Do quants survive the course?
A: Again, it’s not for everyone. But yes, absolutely. An example is a student who studied with me at Roosevelt University. He came to Roosevelt as a freshman from Puerto Rico on a violin scholarship. He was preparing for a career in violin at our conservatory and, at the same time, he had a passion for advanced mathematics. On a lark he enrolled in my Grapes of Wrath course. Half-way through the term he told me that something was happening to him. The evolution of the protagonist, Tom Joad, from self-interested ex-con to benevolent labor leader, he found fascinating. He thought that he might have to switch from violin and math to economics. I told him no, if he really wanted to switch he could study math and economics—he wouldn’t have to give up the math. By the time he was a junior (a third year student) he landed a job with the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago. At graduation he was promoted to Associate Research Economist. Now he’s a master’s student in economics and statistics at Duke University but he is not at all bamboozled by the utility maximization-only schoo