“Thank God that I wasn’t finished when I got my PhD. I continued to read, and this, you might say, has brought me to the glory of an honorary degree at Warwick.”
Twice in her life Deirdre McCloskey, professor emerita of economics, history, English, and communication at the University of Illinois at Chicago, has torn up the rule book – as a young economist challenging the very fundamentals of the discipline, and in her 50s when she declared her intention to change gender and live as a woman in the face of fierce family opposition.
In recognition of her outstanding academic achievements in the fields of economic theory, economic history, philosophy, rhetoric, feminism, ethics, and law, Professor McCloskey has been awarded an Honorary Doctorate by the University of Warwick.
Commenting on the award, she said: “It means a great deal to me. I’ve always been a crazy Anglophile - to the extent that yesterday I was in Lord’s, watching the cricket – and to be honoured by an important English university is wonderful.”
In the 1980s, although a tenured Professor at the University of Chicago, Professor McCloskey became disillusioned with economics as a discipline and argued that economic thinking relied too heavily on econometric analysis and mathematical formulae, ignoring other factors influencing human behaviour. She began to study rhetoric, persuasion, and other schools of economic thought, challenging her peers in a series of journal articles and books. Is she happy with economics as a discipline today?
“I’m not happy – I should say at the outset that it’s not the math, I think we should have more mathematics in economics, not less – but it’s the kind of mathematics. In the education of young economists, we tend to focus on ‘mathematics department mathematics’ - all about the existence of things - as opposed to ‘engineering mathematics’, which is about magnitudes.
“And I think we should focus on the magnitudes, how big things are. But then, as a supplement to how big, we also need to know what they are, and it’s the arts, the humanities, that tell us.
“Philosophy, history, the study of poetry and even painting, teaches us to know what the categories are that we’re going to count. If we don’t have the categories, we can’t count.
Professor McCloskey argues that as well as an appreciation of the humanities, young economists also need a solid grounding in economic history, which is a feature of the Warwick undergraduate programme. She said: “It’s very desirable that economics undergraduates have some understanding of economic history, and the history of economic thought - the intellectual history of economics. Without this we end up with idiot savants of a certain incorrect kind of mathematics.”
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In 1995, Professor McCloskey announced to colleagues and students that she had legally changed her name to Deirdre and would start her “crossing” into life as a woman. Although she expected to lose her job, she found the academic world to be supportive of her decision. She continues to advocate for diversity and transgender rights.
“I was the first transgendered economist and it’s a minority interest, I have to say, but it’s more common than people think – maybe one out of every four of five hundred born males or females want to change gender.
“And it’s become so uncontroversial. When it’s necessary I say ‘Well, you know, I was once a man’ and they say ‘That’s interesting - say, how do you think about England’s prospects in the World Cup’ – they don’t care any more. And that’s, I think, healthy.
“We ought to have diversity. My main reason to have diversity is that it’s a part of freedom. Being who you want to be, harmlessly, should be allowed to everyone. I’m a first wave feminist, I want women to have equal opportunities and I try to encourage female students, and I want black people and transgender people and all to have the kind of life that they want.”
Describing her most recent work, a trilogy on The Bourgeois Era, Professor McCloskey argued that ideas are the root cause of prosperity, particularly in Britain’s Industrial Revolution, and defended access to education as essential to a full understanding of the world: “The cause of it was not material, it wasn’t trade or exploitation or the usual suspects, it was the liberal idea, the idea as Adam Smith expressed it, of equality, liberty and justice.
“Among the great inventions of the modern world - the steam engine, airplanes and so forth – is the modern university. Most people don’t know, but it was invented in 1810 - the University of Berlin. And the idea was to combine, as you do here, research and inquiry - teaching, with exploration in the field. And the students, both undergraduate and graduate students, are to be active explorers.
“And that’s a wonderful invention, and it has material consequences – German chemistry, for example in the 19th century - but it also has, so to speak, spiritual consequences because it beings people - young and old people - into a wider understanding of their world. And it makes for a free person.”
Professor McCloskey drew together her work on the importance of ethics and rhetoric with her belief in the importance of ideas in her words of advice for the students graduating alongside her. She said: “Engineers in particular, and economic engineers among them, should understand that there’s this qualitative world, or scholarship, that they need to be aware of, so that they understand the categories. In the case of economics – what is the good life, and how does the economy relate to the good life, is a crucial question for our science.
“In your life – not necessarily in your current studies where you are learning to be a specialist, but in your future life - you should read widely. Don’t think that just because you’ve graduated from university, or from a PhD program, that you are finished with your education.
“Thank God that I wasn’t finished when I got my PhD, I continued to read, and this, you might say, has brought me to the glory of an honorary degree at Warwick.”
Deirdre N. McCloskey has been since 2000 UIC Distinguished Professor of Economics, History, English, and Communication at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Trained at Harvard as an economist, she has written sixteen books and edited seven more, and has published some three hundred and sixty articles on economic theory, economic history, philosophy, rhetoric, feminism, ethics, and law. She taught for twelve years in Economics at the University of Chicago, and describes herself now as a "postmodern free-market quantitative Episcopalian feminist Aristotelian."
Her latest books are How to be Human* *Though an Economist (University of Michigan Press 2001), Measurement and Meaning in Economics (S. Ziliak, ed.; Edward Elgar 2001), The Secret Sins of Economics (Prickly Paradigm Pamphlets, U. of Chicago Press, 2002), The Cult of Statistical Significance: How the Standard Error Costs Us Jobs, Justice, and Lives [with Stephen Ziliak; University of Michigan Press, 2008], The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Capitalism (U. of Chicago Press, 2006), Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can't Explain the Modern World (U. of Chicago Press, 2010), and Bourgeois Equality: How Ideas, Not Capital or Institutions, Enriched the World (U. of Chicago Press, 2016). Before The Bourgeois Virtues her best-known books were The Rhetoric of Economics (University of Wisconsin Press, 1st ed. 1985, 2nd ed. 1998) and Crossing: A Memoir (U. of Chicago Press, 1999), which was a New York Times Notable Book.
One of her key research focuses has been on economic history, especially British. Her recent book Bourgeois Equality is a study of Dutch and British economic and social history. She has written on British economic "failure" in the 19th century, trade and growth in the 19th century, open field agriculture in the middle ages, the Gold Standard, and the Industrial Revolution.
Her philosophical books include The Rhetoric of Economics (University of Wisconsin Press 1st ed. 1985; 2nd ed. 1998), If You're So Smart: The Narrative of Economic Expertise (University of Chicago Press 1990), and Knowledge and Persuasion in Economics (Cambridge 1994). They concern the maladies of social scientific positivism, the epistemological limits of a future social science, and the promise of a rhetorically sophisticated philosophy of science. In her later work she has turned to ethics and to a philosophical-historical apology for modern economies.
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