Adam Smith and Owning It with The Mystery of the Invisible Hand

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Lauren Heller for AdamSmithWorks

How can teachers introduce their students to Adam Smith's insights with less eye rolling and more engaged learning? Lauren Heller suggests using a little mystery, The Mystery of the Invisible Hand by Marshall Jevons, that is. 
As a professor who is head over heels in love with Adam Smith, and who is also head over heels in love with teaching principles students, I struggle when these passions are in conflict.  While I still assign the first few chapters of The Wealth of Nations, practically swooning at the magical insights during class discussion, I can’t help but notice eye rolling. 
 
What to do then? 
 
Rail against our changing culture that makes students more interested in a TikTok video than classic texts? Telling them to get off my lawn (or out of my class)?
 
Instead, I own it.  I am a quirky person with a lot of enthusiasm who loves corny jokes or a good pun.  If I am going to introduce them to my love for Smith, it might as well be in a quirky way. Enter The Mystery of the Invisible Hand by Marshall Jevons.  This is the latest in a series of economics mystery novels. Yes, you read that right – an economics mystery novel is a thing. The first three books in the series were co-written by Kenneth Elzinga and William Breit. The Mystery of the Invisible Hand, which I focus on here, was written just by Elzinga (Breit died in 2011). Elzinga is an economics professor at the University of Virginia. 

While I have read all of the novels written under the Marshall Jevons pen name in this “Henry Spearman Mystery” series, this one is by far my favorite to assign to Principles students.  Like all of the novels in this series, this one maintains the somewhat playful tone of combining economic theory with dad jokes, but also includes passages that do justice to my bestie Adam Smith.  In addition to the fuller treatment of Adam Smith, this novel also avoids some antiquated language/ideas present in a few of the older books that might be seen as insensitive toward marginalized groups (an absolute must for anyone teaching a diverse audience today).  
 
The plot centers around fictional economics professor and newly minted Nobel laureate Henry Spearman. Spearman, a visiting professor at a small liberal arts college, is asked to solve an art heist and a murder.  Along the way, students are introduced to applications of economic theory like the opportunity cost of sports stadiums, to the effects of future supply shocks on current prices , and even a treatment of the Peltzman effect using a professor’s tie.   
 
This tasty little buffet of economic ideas makes the book a fun choice to supplement a principles class (maybe even a better choice given my quirkiness) but what distinguishes this text from the hundreds of similar others? What makes this one special is the author’s incorporation of Adam Smith.  While Smith’s ideas are sprinkled throughout the text, the main discussions occur in the protagonist’s two big lectures to the fictional campus of Monte Vista University (one in the middle of the book and one toward the end).  In both speeches, Henry Spearman gives a compelling treatment of the text that conveys the exact type of enthusiasm that I try to share with my students when I assign those first few chapters in class discussion. 
 
Moreover, this isn’t just the Adam Smith of the pin factory and the “greater the extent of the market.” It also includes the importance of Smith’s ideas for the welfare of all of humanity, more of the “bleeding heart” Smith. Getting students to read “inspectionally” (as Art Carden describes in this Speaking of Smith article) is hard. Many students haven’t been prepared by their previous education to do this. But Spearman is a hero here too, helping students understand the ideas of Smith without have to understand all of the language of Smith. 
 
Consider this quote:
 
“When Adam Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations, the experience of most people over the whole span of mankind’s existence was one of grinding, hopeless poverty – poverty with no relief, poverty with no hope of improvement. Smith decided to explore and explain the rare aberrations: why and how some nations had escaped this fate and become wealthy. Hence the full title of Smith’s masterpiece: An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations.  What a remarkable title.”
 
Students can be introduced to the magic of Smith that makes me swoon, without quite as many eye rolls at me. The novel is easy enough to read that students might actually read it unlike the original Wealth of Nations
 
Lest I be overly effusive, there are a few caveats especially for instructors thinking of assigning this in their courses as opposed to casual readers. 
 
     1)  The language is a bit antiquated, bordering on heteronormative in spots. This could feel like playful dad jokes in novel form but might rub some people the wrong way. 
     2) The book is a bit hokey (a benefit for me but a cost for others!)
     3) Even though the book is a much lighter read than Smith, an instructor shouldn’t count on students to read it without an incentive. 
 
Some ideas I use are 
·         Creating a quiz on the first half of the book that students complete midsemester and a paper assignment analyzing the full text due toward the end of the semester. 
·         Use in-class discussion on their own or accompanying the previous assignments. I especially delight in these as students can learn from each other and I can guiding their discovery of Smith.
 
I would also be happy to share these assignments with any interested teacher. Just contact me at lheller at berry dot edu. (I'm hesitant to put these online because some of my students - and yours! - are very good at using search engines!)
 
If you, like me, love Adam Smith and are searching for novel ways to reach your students, own it.  Let your enthusiasm spill out, let the magic of Smith’s insights enchant you, and perhaps consider this book to charm your students, eye rolls accepted. 
 
 
Want More? 
Listen to a Great Antidote podcast featuring Kenneth Elzinga where he talks about the books and many other things
A more traditional review of the book by Jeremy Lott
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