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Amherst. Honors Section of Introductory Economics. Paul H. Douglas, 1925

Paul H. Douglas left the University of Chicago to take a job at Amherst in the mid-1920s because his wife Dorothy was unable to get a job at the University of Chicago due to nepotism rules of that time and she found a job for herself at Smith College in Massachusetts. There he began his collaboration with the mathematician Charles Wiggins Cobb that resulted in the statistical fitting of the specification of the production function now named after them. See Cobb and Douglas,  “A Theory of Production”, AER 1920.

 I found the following carbon copy of the report Douglas wrote about his pedagogic experiment with an honors section of introductory economics at Amherst during the second semester of the 1924-25 academic year in the papers of the head of the economics department at the University of Chicago in 1925. Besides the reading list of supplemental reading for his honors section, Douglas includes “teaching evaluations” written by the students.


The University of Chicago
The School of Commerce and Administration

September 26, 1925


Professor L. C. Marshall
University of Chicago
Chicago, Illinois

Dear Professor Marshall:

I am enclosing a report of the Honors Section which I conducted in Economics I last year, which you may find of interest, even at this late date.

Faithfully yours,
Paul H. Douglas




Amherst, Mass.
June 18, 1925


Report to the President and the Instruction Committee of Amherst College on the Special Honors Section given in Economics I during the year 1924-1925.

I. Composition of Group

With the consent of the President and the Dean, the Special Honors Section was set up in Economics I immediately after New Years 1925. The first men invited to join were Messrs. W. B. Carter, Jr. [William Harrison Carter, Jr. (Class of 1926) from Woodhaven, N.Y.], Sperry Butler [Sperry Butler (Class of 1926) from Hubbard Woods, Illinois], O. R. Pilat [Oliver Ramsey Pilat (Class of 1926) from New York, N.Y.], M. O. Damon [Mason Orne Damon (Class of 1926) from Ft. Dodge, Iowa], W. J. Kyle [William Joseph Kyle, Jr. (Class of 1926) from Waynesburg, Pennsylvania], and E. S. Nole [sic. Everett Stearns Noble (Class of 1926) from Coconut Grove, Florida]; these men were all on the Dean’s List. A few weeks later Douglas Tomkins [Douglas Tomkins (Class of 1926) from Brooklyn, N.Y.] was added with the approval of the Dean. These men were excused from attending the regular class exercises and met one evening a week in the Economic Seminar room with the instructor. These sessions ranged from two to three and one-half hours in length.


II. Work Covered

The group read the text used by the ordinary section in the course, namely, Taussig’s Principles of Economics, 2 volumes, but the chief reading was done in additional assignments amounting on the whole to approximately one book a week. These other readings were in the main the cream of the literature on the economic topics considered. The list of supplementary reading covered was as follows:

First week Bagehot, “Lombard Street;” Kemmerer, “The A B C of the Federal Reserve System.”
Second Week Selected chapters from Mitchell, “Business Cycles.”
Third Week Fisher, “Stabilizing the Dollar;” Keynes, “A Tract on Monetary Reform.”
Fourth Week One of the following: Withers, “Money Changing;” Clare, “A B C of Foreign Exchange;” Cross, “Domestic and Foreign Exchange: Theory and Practice.”
Fifth Week Viner, “Dumping;” and discussion of text of McNary-Haugen Bill
[JPE 1922, part I, JPE 1922, part II]
Sixth Week Adam Smith, “Wealth of Nations,” Book IV, Chapter 2.
Seventh Week Taussig, “Some Aspects of the Tariff Problem” Chapter I or II, and “Tariff, Free Trade, and Reciprocity.”
Eighth Week Wolfe, “[Savers’] Surplus and the Interest Rate,” Quarterly Journal of Economics 1920; Selected Chapters from Clark, “Distribution of Wealth.”
Ninth Week Hobson, “Economics of Unemployment.
Tenth Week Ricardo. “Principles of Political Economy,” Chapter 2.
Selected Chapters from Henry George, “Progress and Poverty.
Eleventh Week Adam Smith on Differences in Wages, Book I, Chapter 10, part 1.
Twelfth Week The Basic Rate of Wages; Selected chapters from Clark, “Distribution of Wealth.”
Thirteenth Week Population—Malthus, “Essay on Principle of Population. Comparative chapters from the 1st and 2nd editions. [first edition, sixth edition]
Also one of the following: Carr-Saunders, “The Population Problem,” or J. R. Smith, “The World’s Food Resources.”
Fourteenth Week Profits—Either Hardy, “Risk and Risk Bearing,” or Knight, “Risk, Uncertainty and Profit.”
Fifteenth Week Mitchell, King and Knauth; “Incomes in the United States.” [Vol. I Summary] [Vol. II Detailed Report]
Sixteenth Week (1) Webb, “Industrial Democracy.” Chapter on “Higgling on the Market;” and (2) Fitch, “Causes of Industrial Unrest;” or Hoxie “Trade Unionism in the United States.”
Seventeenth Week Douglas, “Wages and the Family.”
Eighteenth Week Ripley, “Railway Problems, “ 1st volume; or Acworth, “Elements of Railway Economics.”
Nineteenth Week Either Haney, “Business Organization and Combination,” or Jones, “The Trust Problem.”
Twentieth Week Selected Chapters from Seligman, “Essays in Taxation.”

The members of the group seemed to read virtually all the assignments and to canvas the field thoroughly.


III. Personal Appraisal of Work

Personally I was very much pleased with the results of the work. The group seemed to me to cover several times as much ground as the men in the three ordinary sections of the class; and the work was much more thoroughly treated than it would have been had they been compelled to move in the lock-step of the ordinary sections. As a by-product of the work one of the men, Mr. Butler, worked out an algebraic statement of the Ricardian Theory of Distribution; to my knowledge, this has never before been done in the literature of Economics. In conjunction with Mr. Carter, he also worked out a graph of various elasticities of demand representing them on both an absolute and logarithmic scale. The group as a whole did brilliant work on the final examination which was fare more severe than that given to the rest of the class. Four men secured a grade of ninety-five or better, even with the stringent marking that I applied. Two of the men received low nineties, one of these men having been handicapped by illness. The seventh member, who was the weakest person in the group passed the final with only a grade of 78.


IV. Appraisal by Members of the Class

I asked the various members of the class to give me their criticisms of the work done and I am attaching those written statements.


Question One: Have you enjoyed meeting with the group more than you did as a member of an ordinary section? Do you think you have gained a greater knowledge of economics as a result?

“Meeting in the smaller section has been far more enjoyable than the regular class, and I believe that I have gained a greater knowledge of economics as a result. I believe that being able to talk freely with the instructor and members of a small group such as ours gives a student a chance not only to clarify himself on doubtful points, but to get the opinion of others on topics in which he is especially interested. This is impossible in the large classes, where discussion has to be conducted for the benefit of the whole section.
“Moreover, the longer classes must necessarily be retarded, by their very size, and by the fact that the class as a whole can go no faster (that is, cover no more ground) than the least capable or least industrious members. I think this is often a cause for lack of interest among the men who are able to do advanced work.”

“I have not only enjoyed meeting with the group more than the regular classes, but feel that I have derived greater benefit thereby.”

“I am very glad to have an opportunity to express myself on the matter of the honors section in Economics 1. I feel that it has been the most instructive and interesting course that I have taken at Amherst. In the first place, the group has been small enough so that each of us could have the difficulties which he encountered, explained and discussed by the remainder of the group. Then too, the group was not only small, but uniform, so that it was unnecessary for some members to be held back by other slower members, as is the case in the ordinary section. Undoubtedly we have covered more ground, and covered it more thoroughly, than we could have in the regular class.”

“My time in the honor section has been more thoroughly utilized and consequently more enjoyable than in the regular class. I feel certain that I have learned more economics, as a result.”

“The answer is emphatically yes—both in knowledge and enjoyment the honors section has far surpassed the ordinary class meeting-to this I attribute the attitude of the instructor which I think in any such course must be decisive.”

“I feel sure that as a result of the meetings with the group I have gained a much clearer and more comprehensive knowledge of Economics. This was the result partly of the discussions on the various topics and partly of a heightened interest in the course. A true interest in the subject was aroused which is impossible in the regular class meetings.”

“That I have enjoyed meeting with the group more than with the ordinary section is beyond question. Being an ardent advocate of the honors system I am delighted to find it as agreeable and valuable in practice as in theory. Before this morning (the time of the examination) I was a bit doubtful whether I actually knew more economics than if I had stayed in the regular section. While there were parts of the examination which were very complicated, I didn’t once feel that I was completely at a loss although I am aware of mistakes I may have made. As to the factual knowledge of the course I believe that probably exact definitions and the details of various parts may at this moment be better known by those in the regular division, although I would wager I have a better grasp of the fundamentals, and a clearer idea of the relation of the various factors than most of the regular members. Moreover I believe they will stick whereas the definitions and details will quickly fade from the memories of those who did not have the opportunity to tie up these principles by their application to present day conditions as we did. Therefore I feel that I know more real economics than I would have otherwise.”


Question Two: What is the relative amount of work which you have done in the honors section as compared with that which you did before you entered it?

“It was necessary to do more work in the honor section, for the reasons which are stated in the answer to question one. Also, there is considerable of the element of pride involved; I found that if I didn’t know a thing that others members of the section did, I was, ashamed of myself. Then, too, the honor section, with its freedom of discussion, is conducive to thinking, which is, after all, rather rare among Amherst students. More men in regular classes drop the subject as soon as they have left the class room. I believe that a little thought is particularly valuable in economics, for after the principles are grasped, a little consideration permits them to be developed and applied. I consider this “studying” of a sort more valuable than the perusal of textbooks, though the latter is essential to the former.”

“I have done considerably more reading after having been placed in the group division.”

“I have certainly done more work than I did in the regular section. Since we have not been forced to follow a fixed plan or outline of work, many interesting topics have come up which would have passed by otherwise. In general I have done the work assigned to the regular class plus reading in at least one other book. Since all the members of the group have been able to cover more work than is give, or could be given, in the ordinary section, we have been able to talk over more different books and points of view, than we could have in the regular section where the discussion, to benefit the class as a whole, must necessarily be limited by the reading capacity of the slower members. As the work has been more interesting, the extra time required has been no hardship, but has seemed to be especially remunerative.”

“I have spent from one to two additional hours a week for this section.”

“In actual time I have not done much more; but the type of work has been of a decidedly different character. Instead of rather automatic memorizing has come a feeling that this thing must be thought out independently. This sounds platitudinous, but it is true.”

“The amount of work I did in preparation for the group meetings was considerably greater than that done for the regular class meetings at the beginning of the year.”

“I have generally spent all of Monday afternoon and frequently other hours on the seminar work. This is somewhat in excess of the time needed for the regular class work.”

Question Three: As the work was given out, did it seem excessive or could more have been done conveniently?

“I could have conveniently done more work than was assigned though the hour of the section was not the best possible for me.”

“The work as assigned did not seem excessive.”

“The work did not seem excessive. Except that my schedule was unusually heavy this year, I could readily have done more.”

“The assignments seem well-proportioned. I do not think more would be advisable, however.”

“The work as assigned did at times seem excessive—at least to do thoroughly–, but this was seldom the case.”

“In general the work was not excessive usually being of an elastic nature above a certain minimum. I do not think that under our present system of college education in which every man who is at all able is expected to enter a host of student activities, I could have conveniently put in more time on the work. There were occasions when I did more and others when I did less than the average above mentioned, as the pressure of work in activities varied.”


Question Four: Would you favor the continuance of an honors section and if so what suggestions would you have for the improvement of the work?

“I am strongly in favor of a continuance of this system. It enables men who can and will do work that is more advanced to free themselves from the handicaps mentioned in the answer to question one. It certainly deserves a further trial, at least.”

“I am very strongly in favor of the continuance of such honor sections. We were able to pass over hurriedly some of the more elemental and obvious material, and as a result had more time for the discussion of the complex and deeper questions. A greater interest in the material discussed was aroused, with me at least, because of the removal of the drive and compulsion of the ordinary class-room.”

“I should favor strongly the continuance of an honors section, altho I realize it means much extra work for some member of the Faculty. It seems to me that such a group should not have more that eight members and that these members should not be picked before the middle of the first term. I can offer no suggestions for the improvement of the work. But I believe that this plan has not only benefitted the members of the honors section, but all the members of the ordinary section.”

“I am heartily in favor of an honors section.
“Perhaps the work might be improved by further splitting of the topics studied, allowing each student to specialize on one phase. I feel a general lack, in all my courses, of definite and exact knowledge. I think that possibly more thorough study is a limited field supplemented by well-informed discussion from several points of view would help to clarify my all too vague impressions.”

“Yes!! By all means. Caution: No more than approximately those present now should be admitted in any such section.
“The men must be genuinely interested—not those looking for escape from work—for this reason the selection of the group might well be made on the basis of the first term’s work as at present.
“I like the idea of one man leading the section each week—with a paper preferably which takes a definite stand. This ought to encourage discussion, and occasionally, controversy.”

“Yes, I would favor the continuance of such sections in Economics and other subjects also. I feel that I have derived more enjoyment and more value out of the meetings with the group than I have in any other course I have taken in college.”

“I would most certainly favor the continuance of an honors section in this,–and the introduction of the plan in other courses where the material admitted of treatment of this type. I think each group should be chosen by the professor from his regular group on the combined basis of marks, interest and ability. There are other courses in Amherst where the drag of the work due to the time necessary to explain and re-explain various fundamental phases of the work is even more noticeable than in the regular sections of the economics class. Could those who were fortunate enough to be able to go ahead without this repetition, be placed in a special section similar to our honors group, I feel sure they at least would find their college work vastly more inspiring and helpful.

“There is one suggestion I should like to make which I think might add somewhat to the value of such work. It is that any such group should carry on some definite piece of constructive investigation along the line of the course which appears most interesting to them. Each might contribute a paper or all work together under the direction of the professor on such a research. I believe it would serve to centralize much of the other work done. This might be done by the devotion of an occasional meeting to gathering together such special work at various stages in its progress. Otherwise I see very little which could be desired more than we have had this year.”


From the Amherst College Catalog 1924/1925

Economics 1. Principles of economics. The present industrial system with special reference to American conditions. A study of the development of the main features of present industrial society, value and distribution and a number of modern social problems.

Elective for Juniors.

  1. Mon., Tu., Wed., 2.00, Chapel 5.
  2. Mon., Tu., 8.35, Thu., 9.30, Chapel 4.
  3. Wed., Sat., 9.30, Fri., 3.00, Chapel 5.

Professor Douglas and Mr. Taylor. [George Rogers Taylor, Ph.D., Instructor in Economics and Political Science]




The University of Chicago Archives. Department of Economics. Records. Box 6, Folder 7.
Amherst College Catalog 1924/25, p. 33, 81, 147ff.


Image Source: Amherst College. Olio 1926, p. 36.

Irwin Collier

Posted by: Irwin Collier

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