Randall G. Holcombe, Florida State University
Learning From the Master: A Student Evaluation of Professor Buchanan
More than two decades after leaving graduate school, I still feel like a student of Professor Buchanan's1. When I see him, I now call him Jim, but at the same time I think of him as Professor Buchanan, the person who, to use modern economic jargon, gave me the human capital to succeed as an academic economist.2 Of course, because so many people have learned so much from his writing, in one sense there are a huge number of Buchanan students. His ideas have changed the way the profession thinks in fundamental ways, and many people whose main contact with Jim has been through reading his written work can legitimately call themselves Buchanan students. But considered more narrowly, only a privileged few (relatively speaking) have been Buchanan's classroom students, and I am one of them. This essay reminisces about some of the things I learned from Professor Buchanan in addition to economics. I will discuss not what he taught, but how he taught. His ideas can be found in his writing, but Buchanan's teaching methods have been revealed to a smaller group. I must confess that Professor Buchanan's teaching methods have had a huge influence on me, and for more than two decades I have taught my graduate students by trying to emulate the type of instruction I received from Professor Buchanan in the early 1970s.
Introducing... Professor Buchanan!
As an undergraduate I took a special topics course on public choice that used The Calculus of Consent as one of its textbooks, so I was introduced to the work of Buchanan and Tullock prior to meeting them in person, and like many economics graduate students at Virginia Tech at that time, I went there because they were there.3 I was not disappointed. I did not take any classes from Buchanan or Tullock until my second year, but I quickly felt their presence in seminars they gave, and just as impressively, in seminars they attended. Buchanan and Tullock seemed to me to be in a class by themselves. While others looked at the details, both Buchanan and Tullock systematically looked at the big picture. Others might ask questions in seminars about estimation techniques, or about modeling strategies, while Buchanan and Tullock asked more fundamental questions (or, especially in the case of Tullock, launched more fundamental attacks) on the very foundations of a presenter's work.4 Before I had either of them in class, I developed a tremendous respect for their perception, and for their ability to separate out the fundamental ideas from the technical details. Buchanan and Tullock were men with ideas.
As a first year graduate student, it was hard for me to say Buchanan's name without Tullock's. They had co-authored The Calculus of Consent, then barely a decade old, and together were pushing ahead to establish this new subdiscipline of public choice. Their names could have been one word, BuchananandTullock. Being a graduate student at the public choice center at that time was quite exciting, if one could see the excitement through all of the work that graduate students are expected to do. My classmates and I were at least a decade too late to get in on the ground floor of public choice, but we could feel the intellectual excitement of the new subdiscipline ready to break through and become a part of mainstream economics. A large proportion of our professors were working on public choice ideas, and there was a continual stream of outside speakers who managed to get to out-of-the-way Blacksburg to give seminars on public choice topics. Public choice was more than just a field of inquiry. It was the intellectual nucleus of the whole graduate program. Those not so interested in public choice might have viewed this as a lack of balance within the department, and a liability. For a student interested in public choice, however, the public choice center provided a special kind of atmosphere, under the leadership of BuchananandTullock.
Professor Buchanan in the Classroom
As a second year student I took courses from both Buchanan and Tullock, and as much as BuchananandTullock seemed like two components of a single entity to a first year graduate student, they were two completely different entities in the classroom. There was Buchanan, and then there was Tullock. As anybody who knows Gordon can easily imagine, Professor Tullock was always willing to debate students in class, and students quickly learned that if they said anything in class, they had better be prepared to defend it. Tullock did not tolerate dumb ideas, but even good ideas were subject to scathing attack.5 Buchanan was just the opposite. Any student comment was entertained as a potentially good idea.
I can recall times when one of my classmates would say something in class that was ill-conceived enough that I was truly embarrassed by it.6 Rather than attack an idea like this, Professor Buchanan would suggest that the idea had some interesting possibilities, if one just thought about it a little differently. Then he would proceed to restructure the argument, changing it a little bit here and a little bit there, until it emerged as a very interesting insight. I was amazed at Professor Buchanan's ability to turn ugly ducklings into swans in this way, and to this day, this is one of the most enduring lessons that I received from being a classroom student of Jim Buchanan.
The contrast between Professor Buchanan and Professor Tullock in this regard was like night and day. In Gordon's class, one learned that any student's idea, no matter how good, was sure to contain some flaw that could lead to its destruction. In Jim's class, one learned that any student's idea, no matter how bad, could be recast and reworked to discover a valuable insight. Let me say to readers who know Jim Buchanan in other ways, but who never were exposed to Professor Buchanan the classroom teacher, this was, for me, probably the most remarkable thing about having sat in Buchanan's classroom. I wonder if other of his classroom students share my impression. One thing Professor Buchanan's approach does is make students feel more comfortable about expressing their ideas in class. Sometimes too comfortable, I thought as a student, leading my classmates to express ideas that sometimes were embarrassingly incoherent. But the second advantage to Buchanan's approach, which is much more valuable to students, is that it shows students how to work with ideas and develop them into well-reasoned insights.
As a student, I was able to see James M. Buchanan, the future Nobel laureate, stand before me and develop ordinary ideas, or even what I judged to be bad ideas, into good ideas and profound insights. His thought process was exposed to me and my classmates, and we saw not only the final product -- the good idea -- but also how that good idea evolved from something more ordinary. What I really learned in Professor Buchanan's classroom was how to organize my thoughts and structure my ideas, and how to start with some basic idea and make it into something better. Beyond a doubt, this was the biggest benefit that I received from being a classroom student of Professor Buchanan's.
In Professor Buchanan's graduate public finance class, students wrote a lot of papers. Every couple of weeks we handed in short papers that developed our own original ideas on topics that would be assigned to us. When he told us on the first day of class that we would be writing all those papers, my first thought was, "How am I going to be able to come up with so many original ideas on all these different topics?" My only consolation was that Professor Buchanan had been making these assignments for years, and if all those students who came before me could do it, I probably could too. And of course, in the end I did, and so did my classmates.
The first thing I learned from writing those papers was that I could, in fact, do it. I did the assignments, of course, but I did more. Starting only with a topic, I was able to think about it, do a little reading, and then I was able to develop my own original ideas on that topic, and I was able to do it time and time again. I learned that I could write a paper on any subject, even if when I started, I didn't know what the paper would be about. That lesson has carried over into my academic research, and has encouraged me many times to familiarize myself with some interesting body of ideas, knowing that in the end I could use those ideas to develop my own work. Rather than think, "I really can't afford to learn about this because it is too far afield from my own research," I think, "I know that if I spend some time learning this literature, I can develop my own original ideas to contribute to it." Intellectual curiosity can always pay off in terms of academic publications, which of course is one of the main metrics by which academics are measured.7
Writing is a crucial skill for anyone with a graduate degree, and Buchanan's paper assignments helped my classmates and me develop our writing skills. Buchanan's papers helped in other ways too, because they focused on the development of ideas, and the creative aspects of getting started on an idea rather than the more technical aspects of completing a research paper. In the same way that sitting in Professor Buchanan's classroom could help the attentive student see how to develop a good idea, the paper assignments reinforced that by pushing students to develop their own ideas -- a lot of them in a short period of time. It was good training for writing, but it was especially good training for critical thinking. I assign my own graduate students a series of short papers just like I wrote as a graduate student, and tell them they can credit (or blame) Jim Buchanan for the idea.
Write It Down
How do you actually develop ideas, starting from what might appear to be the kernel of a good idea and crafting it into a final product? The lesson I learned from Jim Buchanan is, write it down. I write here only from my own limited experience, and can only conjecture how Jim acted toward other graduate students, and toward colleagues. Outside the classroom, Jim has always appeared to me to be reluctant to talk at any length about ideas in the abstract, but has always been very willing to discuss written work. When I came to him with an idea for my dissertation, he said only that it sounded interesting, and that I should write it down and then we could talk about it. I did write down just what we had talked about earlier, and then we discussed it at length. The procedure was that I would write something down, and then we would talk about it.
That was good discipline, and discipline that I still follow, for several reasons. First, writing ideas down helps to develop their logical structure. It helps the writer to better understand the ideas, so improves them, and it also helps eliminate problems that become more obvious once ideas take their written form. Furthermore, discussing written ideas helps the writer see the next step. In conversation, one can always answer an objection by saying, "Yes, but..." whereas with a written paper, if the qualification or caveat is not already in the paper, the paper writer knows what must be done to shore up a weak part of the analysis. Although I have never been a colleague of Jim's, my impression is that he works the same way himself. Rather than try out an idea on people in conversation, he will write it down and ask them what they think of his paper.
This is yet another lesson that I have learned from Professor Buchanan. If I ever have an idea that I think is worth developing, the first step I take is to write it down. Before that, it is simply a thought, but after it is written down, like a paper for Professor Buchanan's class, it is an idea in its infancy, waiting to be developed. Readers who have seen a listing of Jim's working papers can see that he works the same way, and that the way that he tries out his ideas and prepares them for further development is to write them down.
Jim has attributed his success in part to his work ethic, and of course one cannot produce academic output without, as he says it, applying the seat to the chair. There is more to it than this, however, because once seated, some people use their time more productively than others. Professor Buchanan showed me, in so many ways, how to be productive in the time I am seated. His lessons extended from how do develop a good idea, the importance of writing down ideas, and the payoffs to intellectual curiosity. Yes, he had some economics to teach along the way too, but this can be picked up by reading his own research. Being a classroom student of Jimís brought with it much more than just training in economics.
I was fortunate to have been a classroom student of Jim Buchanan's, but as I hope this essay points out, the main benefits of that classroom experience came not from the economics I learned, but from what I learned about methodical thinking, about organizing and developing ideas, and about taking ideas from their most embryonic stage and developing them into papers, dissertations, articles, and books. Jim did teach a good course, and I appreciate the time he put into preparing the course and all of the public finance I learned in class. But I have learned much more economics from Jim by reading his work since I graduated than I learned in the brief time I spent in his class.8 In contrast, the lessons I learned about how to develop a vague idea into written form, to refine it, and to shape it into an academic publication, gave me the "human capital" to succeed in the academic marketplace.9 Of course, I am relating only my own impressions and experiences, but I am confident that they would be shared by a large number of Jim's former classroom students. One piece of evidence is that so many of them have made their own marks in the world of ideas.
Notes1) What? Footnotes in a personal reminiscence (or student evaluation)? I am afraid so. This is how I was trained to write. The essay is about my experience as a Buchanan student, but all the footnotes are more specifically about me, so if you don't want to know any more about me, you can skip the footnotes. Unlike Marshall's Principles, there is nothing important in the footnotes, and the footnotes contain no equations.
2) I do not mean this to slight the many others who have enhanced my human capital both inside and outside the classroom, but Jim Buchanan's role in my education has made a large impact in three ways. First, I wrote my dissertation under his direction; second, much of my subsequent work has been in public choice, which he was so instrumental in developing as a field; and third, I have learned much from his teaching besides just economics, which is the topic of this essay.
3) I had also been accepted to the University of Virginia with a similar financial aid package, and it was a tough decision as to where to go. In hindsight, I am sure I made the right choice, for more reasons than I can go into in a footnote.
4)I do not mean to slight the other faculty by these comments. With few exceptions, all of my professors in graduate school were very bright people who taught very good courses, and I benefited greatly from their instruction. But there was still, in my mind, two tiers of faculty, with Buchanan and Tullock alone occupying the top tier. My impression is that most of my classmates felt the same way.
5) Through experience, I learned a bit about debating strategy from being a student in Gordon's class. After losing some classroom debates to Tullock when I felt I had the stronger argument, I went back to analyze how it was that Gordon managed to get the better of me, learning both how to engage in debating tactics myself, and how to avoid falling for the debating traps that Gordon would set. My recollection is that after a year of Tullock courses, I was better able to hold my own in a debate with him. And classroom discussions with Tullock definitely were debates.
6) I must concede the possibility that I, too could have made statements in class that embarrassed my classmates. You can finish this paragraph to see why, if I did, I might never have known.
7) I modestly refrain from offering references to my own work as evidence, but to the degree that my work has spanned a wide variety of topics and subject areas, much of that is due to the confidence I first got in Buchanan's class that one can choose a topic to write on first, just because one is interested in the topic, and then with some research and thought write an article (or more) on that topic.
8) Considering the amount of time that has elapsed since I sat in his class, that is probably as it should be. As difficult as it is for me to comprehend it, that was more than a quarter of a century ago.
9) For readers who know me (or perhaps worse yet, who have never heard of me) and want to question the degree to which I have succeeded, I will point out that I am a tenured professor. Can anyone doubt that the guarantee of permanent employment is an excellent indicator of success?