Robert Reich: How Investment in Education Drives the Economy

I teach because it's the best way to have a positive impact on the future. As historian Henry Adams once wrote, "A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops."


I've been teaching for most of the last thirty-five years, and every day I'm in the classroom I feel privileged to be there. Helping students "connect the dots" by understanding the contexts in which social issues arise -- their history, sociology, economics, and politics -- is the path toward true knowledge that can remain with them for life.

Too often it's assumed that disciplines like economics require their own unique ways of thinking -- hence, the term "discipline." The dangerous error is to fail to make the connections with other disciplines -- without which a single discipline like economics loses much of its meaning and significance.

Economics didn't exist as a separate discipline until the great Alfred Marshall published his "Principles of Economics" in 1890. Before that, economics was considered a part of "political economy," and those who studied and taught it assumed it was impossible to understand economics without understanding politics, and vice versa. They were correct. Markets don't exist on their own. They are human institutions whose rules are developed by legislatures, agencies, and courts.

To carry the example further, not even "political economy" existed as a separate discipline in the eighteenth century. Adam Smith, the presumed founder of economics, called himself a "moral philosopher" because the broad discipline from which both politics and economics were born was moral philosophy, for which the central defining question was "what is a good society?"

Without a grounding in morals and ethics -- without a deep understanding that social science is at its root a moral inquiry -- students are left in an ethical wilderness.

I teach because I care about the future -- and I care that we make progress toward a future that's profoundly humane. My students -- hopefully, all students -- will make contributions to a decent society throughout their lifetimes.

Robert B. Reich

            Learn More About InstCon 2014