To celebrate the 30th anniversary of Carleton’s Cambridge Economics Seminar, founder Martha Paas and her former students recount the history of the groundbreaking program and reflect on its influence
Like many historic buildings, the childhood home of British economist John Maynard Keynes is marked by a brass plaque. But this plaque has an especially noteworthy inscription: Presented by Dr. M. W. Paas and the economics seminar, Carleton College Minnesota U.S.A., 1992.
That the Keynes commemorative marker came to be affixed to the gray brick building at 6 Harvey Road, Cambridge, is just one example of Carleton students’ appreciation for the Cambridge Economics Seminar, one of Carleton’s longest-running study-abroad programs, and its founder Martha Paas, the Wadsworth A. Williams Professor of Economics. Students who went on the 1992 trip approached the bursar of Caius College (which owns the Keynes house) for permission to secure a plaque, then pooled their money to purchase one in honor of Paas and the seminar.
The seminar’s approach of immersing students in a foreign culture while exposing them to historical sites and original sources helped define Carleton off-campus studies when the program was in its infancy. Some 665 Carls have participated in the Cambridge Economics Seminar since its inception. Helena Kaufman, director of Carleton’s off-campus studies programs, says it set the tone for the development of future off-campus seminars.
“It was developed to enrich and expand students’ experience in the major through on-site study and access to local faculty experts,” Kaufman says. “And it was designed to allow different faculty members in the department to bring their expertise to teach the director’s course. This is how most of our programs continue to be structured today.”
“I’ve always been an Anglophile,” says Martha Paas, standing in her Northfield home before a portrait of James Thynne (member of Parliament in the late 17th century). “One of my students said, ‘You act like the 17th century is your own personal century!’ But when you’re passionate about something, you want to share it with students.”
Soon after she joined the Carleton faculty in 1976, Paas—who teaches courses in macroeconomics, economic history, and the history of economic thought—recognized that her students readily grasped economic theory and were able to apply a standard set of economic variables to create economic analyses. Yet she could see there was something missing in the process of teaching students to think like an economist. Without historical context, students tended to regard economic theory as truth rather than a more or less useful way of explaining how the economy works with an evolving set of institutions.
In her lectures, Paas tried to conjure the worlds of Renaissance Venice, 18th-century Britain, or 19th-century United States. She challenged her students to consider how the historical context changes the array of variables that must be considered when formulating economic theory.
Paas settled on the notion of creating an off-campus study program to expand the imaginations and experiences of economics majors, who tended to be ambitious and goal-oriented and typically were not interested in “being ‘diverted’ by a trip abroad,” she says. “Thirty years ago there were very few opportunities for students to study abroad. But I agreed with John Stuart Mill who said that a person is not likely to be a good economist who is nothing else. I wanted to give students that opportunity.”
In 1980 Paas created Carleton’s first economics seminar abroad, to Nuremberg, Germany. She structured the program to ensure that students would observe and question everything about their unfamiliar surroundings, an approach she dubbed “experiential” (unaware at the time that education scholars were simultaneously developing a similar theory of experiential learning that has since become widely adopted). Students lived with German families and took trips to observe firsthand how German economic institutions worked.
Three years later, Paas, a committed Anglophile, moved the program to Cambridge, an ideal base of operations from which to study and examine firsthand the history of the Industrial Revolution, contemporary British economy, and institutions such as the European Union and the World Bank.
With the assistance of Paas’s brother, Tom White, a physicist and Life Fellow at King’s College, Carleton became the first American college to establish a permanent program abroad there. Not insignificantly, King’s was the college of Keynes and his illustrious mentors, Alfred Marshall and Arthur Cecil Pigou—and thus, Paas says, “as close to a place of pilgrimage as economics is likely to get.”
Again, she made sure that students would experience things they could not find in Northfield, and that the program was more than a glorified vacation. Seminars on how the Bloomsbury Group (a group of intellectuals and artists that included Keynes) might have influenced Keynes were held in the same halls he once walked.
Dan Ballintine ’93, an attorney in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, who attended the seminar in 1992 (and orchestrated placing the plaque on the Keynes house along with Brett Bartlett ’93 and Kyle Brinkman ’93), remembers seeing Keynes’s notebooks and papers at the Keynes Archives in King’s College Library. “I was blown away by the fact that we were able to hold his actual manuscript of The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money, which is one of the most famous economics books in all history,” he says.
Observing artifacts and visiting locations where the Industrial Revolution took root made economics come alive for students. On the first Cambridge trip in 1983, Paas hired Stanley Graham—who had run the last steam-driven textile mill in Lancashire and was a 50-plus-year-old graduate student at the time—to guide the students around the Midlands, the cradle of the Industrial Revolution. Although Graham’s salty, irreverent style put Paas off at first, he soon became a great colleague. Graham knew his material—his Lancashire Textile Project was a pioneering work in the field of oral history—and he became an integral part of the program until 2000. To encourage students to learn on their own, Graham would often show them a site and ask, “What happened here?”
Paas recalls fondly when Kyle Brinkman ’93 was learning—albeit reluctantly—to spin wool at the Helmshore Mills Textile Museum in Lancashire. Suddenly, she recalls, he looked up and said with wonderment, “So that was what the Industrial Revolution was all about! Mechanizing the twist on that thread!”
Like many alumni of the Cambridge Economics Seminar, Carl Weissman ’85, was deeply affected by the experience. “It didn’t change what I did with my life, but it changed my life,” says Weissman, now chair and CEO of Accelerator, a biotech investment company in Seattle. “It was an incredible immersion into English life. We had an opportunity to see places that were, for the most part, older than our country, and to take classes in Christopher Wren–designed buildings.”
At the end of the summer, Weissman tried to convince the National Westminster Bank to hire him, although England’s tough economy in 1984 meant he couldn’t get a work visa. But as soon as he had the wherewithal, he and his family established a scholarship in honor of Ada Harrison, a 30-year member of the economics department faculty, so that if “someone had their heart set on experiencing the Cambridge seminar but it was out of reach, I wanted to see that happen,” says Weissman.
Cultural Experiences, Tight Bonding
Paas knew that, at first glance, students might miss some of the subtle differences between the daily life of the British and the Americans. So instead of a term paper, she required students to keep a daily journal of observations, noting things in the economy they saw or experienced that were different from America. Students reported that this reflective exercise made them look at their own country differently when they returned, because they realized there were historical reasons behind things they had once taken for granted. For example, why were electric hairdryers sold without plugs, which then had to be purchased separately? The answer was that in the early days of manufacturing in England, there was no standardization of sockets. “They learned to look more closely and to analyze daily life in ways that a tourist would not,” says Paas.
All economics and no play makes for an unbalanced liberal arts experience, so Paas also made sure that seminar participants visited theaters and museums and enjoyed unstructured downtime. Alumni remember punting up the River Cam to the century-old Orchard Tea Garden (frequented by Keynes and his Bloomsbury circle), and waiting overnight in lines to score tickets to the Wimbledon tennis championships. Many alumni recall fondly their nightly trips to the Granta pub, next door to King’s College, as well as the sense of deep and long-lasting camaraderie among participants.
Brett Bartlett ’93, a technology services manager in Boise, Idaho, recalls how his group came together like a family, with Paas making her concern for each student evident. “The seminar was about mentoring the whole person, not just soaking in economics principles,” he says.
“The combination of a passionate faculty member, a good program, and a tightly bonded group was key,” adds Elizabeth Phillips ’85, a social work researcher at the University of Michigan.
Some of the bonds were permanent. Group photos of seminar students from each of the six Cambridge programs she directed line Paas’s office walls. She can identify more than a dozen couples who met on the program and were later married. “It got to be kind of a joke that there was a Love Boat kind of vibe on my program,” Paas says with a laugh.
Paas’s final innovation—in 2000, her last year leading the program—was to have participants begin the summer with a 10-day backpacking trip to sites that provide background for their subsequent studies in England. Aspects of Europe’s premodern economy can still be glimpsed in Rothenburg and Nuremberg, Germany, and in Bruges, Belgium. And in Ypres, Belgium, the daily ceremony at the Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing, in honor of the unknown soldier, puts into context the long lists of war dead that students see in British churches.
As for why she stepped down as the seminar’s director, Paas says, “The program takes an enormous amount of energy and, as I grew older, I wondered how long I’d be able to lead the way and be the first one up on the moor.”
Passing the Torch
Newer economics faculty members, usually in their third year in the department, now lead the seminar. In 2001 the program moved to Hughes Hall, another Cambridge college, but the essential framework remains, as Paas hoped it would.
Students today visit London corporations where Carleton alumni and trustees work, including Shell, CNN International, and Barclays, says assistant professor of economics Lauren Feiler, who led the trip in 2010. Though career development is not an explicit goal of the program, contacts made by one of Feiler’s students led to an internship at Barclays and, eventually, a job. “There is always opportunity to shape the Cambridge program to some extent,” says Feiler, whose interests include behavioral and experimental economics and game theory. “What will give it legs [in the future] is that it is a flexible program.”
Paas would be the first to agree. “My able, younger colleagues should lead their students to discover things that excite them, for that is where the spark of the seminar originates,” she says.
Thanks in part to her Cambridge experience in 2000, Elizabeth Pennie Thomas ’03 decided to move to New Zealand after graduation and then to Hong Kong, where she now works for a utility. “Europe is one of the most interesting places in the world to study economics,” says Pennie Thomas, who was a young alumni trustee on Carleton’s Board from 2008 to 2012. “[On my trip,] we looked at the question of whether the United Kingdom should adopt the euro. I imagine these days students are asking all sorts of questions about whether the euro zone should be broken up, why, and what the implications would be. The specific issues themselves have evolved over the years, but the wealth of interesting questions and discussion topics remains.”
Paas’s enthusiasm for her brainchild remains undiminished three decades on. “It was wonderful—the most exciting teaching I have ever done,” she says. “And I think it was the most important thing I’ve accomplished for Carleton. The Cambridge seminar prepares our students not to be the kind of economists who are content to build models without understanding what the data mean. There’s an old saying, ‘Economics makes you smart, but history makes you wise.’ The Cambridge seminar was based on my desire to make Carleton students wiser.”
In 2002, 14 members of the 1992 seminar (the group that presented the bronze plaque to Paas) held a 10-year reunion in England, which Paas attended. (She and her husband, Roger Paas, who is the William H. Laird Professor of German and the Liberal Arts at Carleton, bought a house in Somerset, where they spend the summers.) “The students talked about the plaque and about the one and only time they ever saw me speechless,” says Paas. “I think they regard that plaque as the lasting contribution of the Cambridge seminar. But I know better. What will endure is the expanded breadth of imagination of all the students who studied there and who, through experience, learned how to see the world with fresh eyes.”
Tom Buchmueller ’85
Waldo O. Hildebrand Professor of Risk Management and Insurance, University of Michigan Ross School of Business
Program year: 1983
“Martha is the classic Carleton professor: deep, rigorous, thought-provoking, and interested in getting to know students as people.
“Last year I worked on health care reform as part of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers. In May I will be going back to D.C. with a group of MBA students to talk to policy makers and other experts. It’s a class I’ve been thinking about creating since Cambridge.”
Kirk Weidner ’85
Vice president, head of key account global sales, Cargill; 25th reunion trustee, Carleton
Program year: 1984
“I’ve been interested in exchange rates ever since that trip when the dollar rose to one of its strongest points in decades against the pound sterling. I remember that Martha made us memorize the kings and queens of England and their years of rule in order to go on the program.”
Jessica Gross Griffith ’93
Freelance writer and stay-at-home mom
Program year: 1992
“As an English student, I was the only one in the group who wasn’t a social science major, but the broader purpose of the liberal arts is to give you a new perspective. During the trip, I was forced to look at the world through the lens of economics, rather than literature. When we went to Stratford-upon-Avon to see the Royal Shakespeare Company perform As You Like It, I reread the play and gave some of my classmates a summary beforehand. That was about the only time I was useful to the economics majors!”
Grant Barrick ’97
Vice president of product management, Wolters Kluwer Health
Program year: 1996
“My trip to Cambridge was a turning point for me. I will always appreciate everything Martha did in gently pushing me outside my comfort zone. To say it was a transformative experience would not be an overstatement.”
Erin Gudul ’12
Commodity merchant, Cargill
Program year: 2010
“Working in agribusiness, my knowledge of the Industrial Revolution’s impact on our modern-day economy provides invaluable insight into the historic events that have molded the agricultural industry into what it is today. The Cambridge Economics Seminar may not be quite as rustic or off-the-beaten path as other off-campus opportunities, but it is exactly what a study-abroad program should be: a balance of academic and cultural experiences.”
Web Extra: Add your own comments and memories about the Cambridge Economics Seminar in the comments section below.