Combatting Economic Illiteracy Through Biography: Reaching More Students Through Stories

Economic illiteracy is running rampant through young people.
Stock Charts During Trading
Photo: Nicholas Cappello/Unsplash

Many lament the deplorable lack of economic and financial literacy in today’s college graduates because their collective ignorance allows economic policymakers to more easily get away with silly claims like inflation is transitory and higher taxes spur economic growth. Professors and teachers who wish to elevate public economic policy discourse naturally call for more required courses in economics, personal finance, and such.

Forcing students to take courses, especially in today’s university climate, however, typically leads to watered down curricula taught by frightened faculty. Plus, required courses have to run through politicized gauntlets of often hostile gatekeepers. While many hope that incentive reforms and competition from new entrants like Austin, Ralston, and Thales eventually will improve America’s collegiate climate, there are steps that professors can take right now to make U.S. higher education a little less awful and a little better at preparing students for the real world.

So, Jan Traflet, a professor in Bucknell’s Freeman School of Management, and I have experimented with a new pedagogical approach, interesting students in economic and financial policy topics through biography, specifically Fearless, our new book about Wilma Soss (1900-1986), Evelyn Y. Davis (1929-2018), and America’s forgotten stockholder movement.

Others have tried interesting students in economics and finance through works of fiction, with mixed success. The University of Virginia’s legendary Economics 101 professor Kenneth Elzinga penned a series of murder mystery novels designed to teach elementary economics concepts like supply and demand. His Murder at the Margin and Fatal Equilibrium remain classics of the genre. 

When I was Elzinga’s colleague some twenty years ago, I taught a course called “Economics Through Literature” that helped students to learn about opportunity cost, monetary policy, and property rights through Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, and other classic works of fiction. Similarly, R. Edward Freeman of the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business has long taught business ethics through novels, short stories, plays, and other works of fiction.   

The Choice: A Fable of Free Trade and Protectionism by Russ Roberts presents a fictional account of the ghost of David Ricardo to teach the basics of international trade economics. It has gone through multiple editions and I assigned an early edition as required and suggested reading in several of my courses until students began to complain that it seemed too contrived. 

So I came to suspect that nonfiction narratives, especially biographies, can be a more effective way of luring students into important areas of study that might frighten them, or that they may have been told is evil, precisely because nonfiction is, by definition, less contrived than novels, especially those penned by economists. 

Autobiographies like Ken Langone’s I Love Capitalism! or Joe Rickett’s The Harder You Work, the Luckier You Get can be as pedagogically powerful as biographies but only to the extent that they read authentic. Politicized political memoirs therefore need not apply. Although even “serious” nonfiction works in the social sciences or history can be fanciful – see the critiques of the New History of Capitalism, especially on slavery, for ample evidence of that – they cannot be made up out of whole cloth like fictional narratives or puffy memoirs, like that thing Andrew Cuomo put out, can.

Let’s face it, people like true stories, especially true stories about people, especially famous people. As social creatures, humans seem hardwired to discover how and why people did the things they did, especially when those people and things were intrinsically interesting. True crime is a huge genre for a reason!

Wilma Soss was no criminal but she did many intrinsically interesting lawful things and became famous for it. In the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, Soss was a household name in America, with nicknames like “Queen of the Corporate Gadflies” and “The Woman of a Million Words.” Millions tuned into her weekly NBC radio show, “Pocketbook News,” while millions of others tracked her stockholder meeting exploits via numerous magazine and newspaper articles dedicated to her antics. A Broadway play and Hollywood movie called The Solid Gold Cadillac dramatized aspects of her life.

Soss was beautiful, smart, and fearless. After marrying the love of her life and earning an undergraduate degree from Columbia’s new journalism school in 1925, she served as a cub reporter for a few years before transitioning to the emerging public relations (PR) field, where she made a mint during the Great Depression and World War II. 

After the war, Soss discovered while researching an article for Forbes that female investors outnumbered male ones in most major U.S. corporations. That got her back into the stock market, where a male trustee had lost her modest inheritance during the Great Bear market of the 1930s. She started attending annual stockholder meetings, often in costumes designed to attract attention to the main point she was trying to make. She also launched a nonprofit dedicated to increasing financial literacy among small shareholders and getting more qualified women on corporate boards, among other goals.

In short, Soss was a fascinating financial feminist and that alone might get students interested in increasing their level of financial literacy. But Soss was also a top pop economist and almost all of the transcripts and recordings of her radio show, which ran from 1957 until 1980, are available at the American Heritage Center at the University of Wyoming in Laramie. They are a treasure trove of historical but also financial and economic insights into important topics like leading economic indicators, inflation, and public choice. 

In Fearless, Traflet and I distill Soss’s insights to their essence, making it a stealth textbook that reads like a novel. The notion is not to drill students on “the” right answer but to spur their intellectual curiosity. The book isn’t “comprehensive,” which was always a dubious pedagogical goal anyway. The idea is to awaken students to a world currently foreign to too many of them. In other words, Fearless might make students a little braver, inducing them to volunteer to take a course they might not otherwise consider, and that can be more rigorous precisely because it is not required.

But where will students encounter Fearless in the first place? The book is being widely publicized so they might find it on their own. The authors hope, however, that it will also end up on recommended summer reading lists or as a required supplemental text in relevant courses, from business to women’s studies, because of its ability to stimulate intellectual curiosity while introducing key economic and financial concepts.

Fearless as she was, Soss cannot solve higher education’s many pressing problems. Her biography, though, could interest high school and university students in economic and financial topics that they might otherwise never be exposed to at all, let alone in proper fashion. Rumors already swirl about a movie adaptation. While it’s unlikely that a hit Broadway musical about Soss is in the offing, the stunning success of the Hamilton musical reveals the potential pedagogical power of biography.

Robert Wright
Robert E. Wright is the (co)author of 24 books, including Fearless: Wilma Soss and America’s Forgotten Investor Movement (All Seasons Press, 2022). He is also a Senior Faculty Fellow at the American Institute for Economic Research.

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Chalkboard Review team.

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