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Thursday, February 3, 2011

Where Did You Come From?

If you were in my economics class, this is a question you would be thinking about. People, especially young people, tend to be, IMHO, narrowly focused. They don't often step back and look at the big picture. Thinking about where you came from  is a big picture exercise. I ask them to think about what it would be like if they could meet and talk to their family from, say, 300 years ago.

Students tend to fall into two categories. One is those who have spent much of their lives in Howard County or a similar "wealthy location." Many times they have difficulty understanding how well off they are. They have an advantage in the class because they have spent their lives in a free market capitalistic economy. To them, it is perfectly natural to be able to choose their occupation and to see the free market operate around them. Their disadvantage is that they don't understand that most of the world is not as well off as them.

The second group has lived in or near serious poverty. They've seen people drinking rain water out of the gutter and crammed into one-room apartments. Some have difficulty comprehending the free market, capitalistic economic system.

Thinking about our stories and where we came from brings us a bit closer despite our widely different backgrounds.

I share my story, at least what I know it to be and what I perceive it to be, with the class. I know my grandfather came from Krasnopol, Poland in 1900. Krasnopol is in the northeastern part of Poland near the Russian border. I was told my grandfather, as a young man, had a choice: be drafted into the Russian army or go to that place that was creating a buzz throughout Eastern Europe and much of the world - America. What created this buzz? Why was America attractive compared to Poland in 1900?

But going farther back, I can surmise that there was a family a couple of hundred years ago near or in Krasnopol, with a woman from whom I am directly descended. Historians tell us that this family probably never traveled more than a 150 miles from where they were born. They tell us that the family likely lived in a small windowless hut and was self sufficient - they raised their own food, made their own ragged clothes, and worked hard from the time the sun came up until dark. Frankly, they were probably pig farmers.

Fast forward a few hundred years, and here I am. Highly specialized,  managing investments and teaching economics, I  having most of my wants and needs produced by others (many, actually, in 3rd world countries!)--although I do have a small garden. I buy my clothes, am highly entertained, and have traveled and lived in other countries. Clearly, a poor Polish family of a few hundred years ago  would not be able to relate to the lifestyle I live today.

The purpose of this exercise is to get students to write (the school is a "writing intensive" school) and to begin thinking about economics. And their stories are fascinating. I get students who have lived much different lives than those who have lived in the U.S. all their lives. This semester I have a student from Bosnia and one from Burma. I learned that "akwaaba" means welcome in Ghana. A few years ago I had a student from Ethiopia. In one class, we listed the requirements for economic growth. The last item listed was "political stability." She came up after class and said, "Mr. Wasilewski, political stability should be listed first. Without it, the other requirements don't matter." I, of course, was teaching out of a book. She had lived it. Ever since, "political stability" has been listed first.

This year, I will have the students view Hans Rosling's very creative presentation on the impact of the Industrial Revolution to get another way of viewing economic progress:

Where did you come from?


  1. America had completely open immigration in those times (well, if not completely open, certainly more so than today) which changed over the years. Already in the 50s it was much more difficult to go into the USA while Canada was relatively easier, so my family came to Canada, instead... in my view, barriers to immigration function sort of like trade barriers, and make us worse off. While we can't and shouldn't just let people in willy-nilly, neither do I believe in closed-off borders segregating the world's people while capital is relatively more free.

    Have you ever considered sharing the site with your students? It could be interesting to open the discussion and see their feedback on different topics, such as this one.

  2. @Invest It Wisely I have thought about it but haven't so far except after the course is over for a select few students. Maybe I should reconsider.