Teaching economics using proverbs from around the world

Gherardo Girardi, London Metropolitan University
Published October 2011

Aims

The objective of the project is to explore the use of proverbs from around the world in economics education. There are fundamentally two reasons for adopting such an approach, the first do with the content of what we teach, and the second with the technique:

(a) Proverbs can shed light on the behaviour of economic agents in the ways that mainstream economics education does not. For example, the Russian proverb “Where wealth is established it is difficult for friendship to find a place” suggest that wealth may have a negative bearing on the genuineness of our relationships; another example is the Swahili proverb “The wealth which enslaves the owner is not wealth”, which raises the possibility that in some way wealth may dominate the one who owns it. The linguist Mieder (1986), author of the Prentice-Hall Encyclopaedia of World Proverbs, says that proverbs are “small pieces of wisdom that have been handed down from generation to generation and that continue to be applicable in our modern technological age”.

(b) Both transformative learning theory and the humanistic approach pioneered by Carl Rogers advocate the use of provocative, thought-stimulating material which will induce the student to question the validity of his or her views, for example how he or she relates to wealth. Such questioning can lead to transformation of meaning perspectives (including how a student looks at life) and is essential if the experience of higher education is to be truly engaging and vitalizing. Such material may be even more thought-provoking if coming from cultures other than that of the student; in this sense proverbs from around the world make striking, thought-provoking material. In addition, proverbs appeal to most people in that they use “wit, colourful language, imagery” (Mieder(1986)). Finally, in a society like ours in which people demand quick access to easily accessible, concise information, the short length of proverbs (usually limited to one line) is also an attractive feature.

The literature on the use of proverbs for pedagogical purposes would appear to be non-existent in economics, and very limited in other disciplines, pointing to the innovative nature of the approach. Tisdell and Tolliver (Adult Learning, 2003) describe the use of proverbs in African-centred psychology education. Similarly, Grant and Asimeng-Boahene (Multicultural Perspectives, 2006) discuss the use of African proverbs in urban schools with a view to promoting a sense of citizenship. Ibanez (Journal of Chemistry Education, 2002) shows how proverbs can be used to teach chemistry (!). Chareris-Black (Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, 1995) uses proverbs to develop the cross-linguistic understanding of professionals involved in intercultural situations. Manzo (Reading Teacher, 1981) describes the use of proverbs to improve reading comprehension skills and critical thinking abilities.

Methodology

During a lecture in Comparative Economic Development, a third year undergraduate subject, I distributed to the students an exercise in the shape of a questionnaire. The questionnaire began by asking students if they agreed with the statement that “the more wealth a person has, the happier that person is”. I the presented students with 10 proverbs, 5 of which conveyed a positive message about wealth (or money), e.g. “Time is money”, and five of which conveyed a negative message, e.g. “Great wealth and contentment seldom live together”. This was followed by a class discussion. The ethnic origin of the proverbs was hidden throughout the exercise to avoid the possibility that stereotypes might affect students’ ratings. I then asked the students to rate again the question I had initially given them on the relationships between money and happiness, to see if their ratings had changed. Subsequently, I provided students with the full list of proverbs containing the word “wealth” from the Prentice-Hall Encyclopaedia of World Proverbs (51 proverbs in all). For the purpose of this exercise, these 51 proverbs represent a rough approximation of world wisdom about wealth. I asked students to rate how positively each proverb was about wealth (i.e. if it “spoke well” about wealth or not) and how truthful they believed each proverb to be. Finally, I once again asked them to answer the question on the relationship between wealth and happiness. Demographic data was collected. There were 30 responses.

In addition to the questionnaire, I conducted a focus group with 7 participants, as well as 5 individual interviews.

Results

This section considers the results from (a) the questionnaire, (b) the focus group and (c) the 1-to-1 interviews.

Results from the questionnaire

A considerable number of students appear to have undergone a change of perspective in line with transformative learning theory. Specifically, 10 out of 30 students underwent a change in perspective as a result of undergoing the exercise, with 7 being less in agreement with the statement that money buys happiness and 3 being more so. Interestingly, females are significantly less likely to think that money buys happiness.

The majority of proverbs (38 out of 51) were regarded by students as truthful, though the average level of perceived truthfulness was somewhat low (at 0.54, with the range of possible answers going from 2 to -2, 2 being very true, -2 very untrue, and 0 neither true nor untrue).

Proverbs regarded as most truthful by students were:

  1. ”Wealth is of no use to the dead” (1.60) (or “Wealth will not keep death away” (1.57))
  2. “The greatest wealth is contentment with a little” (1.50)
  3. “The best wealth is health” (1.48)/”Little avails wealth where there is no health” (1.32)
  4. “When there is wealth, there is power” (1.40)
  5. “The wealth which enslaves the owner is not wealth” (1.34)

Proverbs regarded as least truthful by student were:

  1. “Wealth may be bequeathed to the children but it never reaches the grandchildren” (-0.66)
  2. “Wealth is an enemy to health” (-0.61)
  3. “Inherited wealth has no blessing” (-0.40)
  4. “Who seeks wealth without previous wealth is like him who carries water in a sieve”(-0.31)
  5. “Wealth is the poison of pleasure and root of sorrows” (-0.30)

39 (out of 51) proverbs on average portrayed wealth in a negative light, the average being -0.46 (again the range is from -2 to 2, with 0 being “neither positive nor negative”). This has important implications for economics education, which almost invariably treats wealth as a (positive) way of expanding one’s set of affordable goods, ignoring other, more subtle, negative effects of wealth on well-being. An example of a “negative” proverb is “Where wealth is established it is difficult for friendship to find a place”, suggesting that relationships may turn instrumental and affections may not be genuine when wealth is at stake.

Two trends emerged from students´ comments in the questionnaires. The first is that, even before engaging with proverbs, students already see the pros and cons of money, in contrast with what they are taught in class, where only pros as considered. Pros include the relief of stress in that money makes it possible to pay bills and to purchase valuable services such as holidays. Cons include the notion that with more money come more problems, and that having a lot of money makes it difficult to tell real value of one´s friendships. Finally money cannot buy some things like health, beauty, love, true respect, knowledge. The second widely held belief is that money helps to increase one´s happiness up to a certain level of income, consistently with the economics of happiness literature.

After engaging with the proverbs, student remarked that they appreciated seeing both the positive and negative aspects of money reflected in the proverbs, and being made to reflect in some depth on their attitude towards wealth. There was also general agreement that, as one student said, “proverbs describe the wisdom of history in a few words”.

The questionnaire also made it possible to test the hypothesis as to whether a student of a particular ethnic group was more likely to find proverbs from his or her ethnic group true than proverbs from other ethnic groups. Upon grouping students by continent, no evidence was found in support of this hypothesis.

Results from the focus group

In general, students felt that the exercise promoted reflection on how people related to wealth and enjoyed taking part in it. As in the questionnaires, students thought that were was wisdom in proverbs, stressed the need to be content with what one has and expressed a balanced approach to money which recognized its limitations in attaining happiness.

Students made comments about certain aspects of the behaviour of people which are not normally captured in mainstream economics. For example, some remarked that money “can bring about a change in personality”, with people who become richer displaying an increase in greed and looking down on other, less wealthy people. There was general agreement that to enjoy wealth one has to work hard for it, otherwise he or she will not be able to appreciate it; this is in contrast with the assumption made in economic models that effort is associated primarily with disutility. A student felt that people were happy in poor countries as relations such as family ties were strong and “there was not a lot of economic development”. A student lamented the absence of any discussion about virtue in the economics curriculum, and felt that we were wrong in teaching that people are fundamentally Hobbesian, i.e. “brutish and nasty”. There was also a discussion of whether being far from nature in our society (i.e. living in urban areas) had a detrimental effect on our ability to appreciate the simple things in life and the complex production processes required for food to reach our table. The effect of those around us in determining our relationship with money was also discussed, an interaction which some proverbs brought to the fore, such as the Japanese proverb “When you have wealth and fame, even strangers gather round; in times of poverty and lowliness, even relatives depart from you”. There was also a discussion about whether we should explicitly teach to take into account other agents’ well-being, with a student approving of this in the case one of the agents is poor.

Students generally felt that human nature has not changed over history, making proverbs, which normally have ancient roots, still relevant today. Indeed, one student felt that through proverbs one could learn “from others’ mistakes and experiences”. There was less agreement as to whether proverbs are equally relevant across cultures. Students indicated that when proverbs clash, they do not accept one and reject the other, but instead tend to reconcile them or to believe that one applies in some circumstances and its opposite applies in other circumstances; for example, although the proverbs “Where wealth is established, it is difficult for friendship to find a place” and “Where wealth, there friends” clash (at least prima facie), students interpret the word “friends” in the second proverb in a sarcastic sense, thus reconciling the two proverbs. In addition, one student remarked that a proverb may be useful to someone in one situation, and another is useful in another situation. A student felt that the exercise had made her reflect in depth about her views and that she had changed her mind about the culture-specificity of proverbs, feeling that they were more universal and applicable across cultures than she had initially thought. Another student felt that the exercise had confirmed her view as to she should relate to money, which is, in a certain sense, an example of transformative learning. 4 out of 7 students felt that they would have benefited from being given more time to reflect on the proverbs (an hour rather than the forty minutes they were given). Finally, a student remarked that the tutor should try to relate proverbs to the definition of economics (one way of doing this might be distinguish between the aims and means of economics inquiry, and assessing the extent to which proverbs help to identify these aims and the means to achieve them).

Results from the individual interviews

Student A.

This student from the north of England felt that the exercise had “opened” his “mind a bit”, that “with proverbs you´re forced to think outside the box” in that he was not given any input by the tutor before engaging with the proverbs. He said that he was not given “a received wisdom which you are supposed to take in” and felt a sense of exploration and freedom in taking part in the exercise: “With proverbs, you´re on your own and it’s all in front of you”. He would have appreciated more time to reflect on the proverbs to “orient yourself”, especially since he found 20% of the proverbs not very straightforward. Finally, he felt that the “proverb background” (which he later identified as one’s culture) “kicks in when you have to make decisions”.

For this student, happiness did not lie in wealth, but in being a respected member of a community, an attitude which he felt came from his Yorkshire working class background. He felt that wealth acquisition would break the link with the community he had grown up in.

Student B

This Somali students considers “proverbs more truthful than figures”, in fact she finds them a “useful reminder that there is more in economics than figures”. Proverbs “have been around for a long time, so there is wisdom in them”, unlike figures, which can “change across time and cultures, like the Phillips curve” (referring to the fact that the original, simple Phillips curve was lost from the 70’s onwards). She cites a Somali proverb which says that “People lie, but proverbs don’t lie”. She found some of the language of proverbs old-fashioned, “so you have to read and interpret”. 10-15% of proverbs were hard to understand. She felt she had enough time during the exercise.

In Somalia, she says, people think that money buys happiness, and at the same time people who spend money mostly on themselves would be regarded as selfish. People who emigrate to rural areas tend to help those in the rural areas (“charity begins at home”, she says), sometimes helping poor relatives to study in the city, so that these poor relatives are grateful. However, quite a few newly rich emigrants break this helpline, in that “as soon as someone gets rich, their personality completely changes, and associate [only] with rich urban people” (note that such a “personality change” was also mentioned by a couple of students in the focus group). Somali culture is strongly influenced by Islam. For example, one should beware of hidden agendas when giving money for charity, such as “expecting the poor man’s gratitude”; instead, one “should do it for the Lord” and so display purity of intention. She cited the saying “Remember God when you are wealthy, he’ll remember you when you are poor”, and the prophet Mohammed’s words “Ask for wealth that will not delude [or corrupt] you”. She felt that the three monotheistic religions had a similar approach to wealth.

Student C

This Kenyan student felt that, although “the usefulness of proverbs is that everyone can relate to them, because they have been collected from different cultures and hence portray a ‘general view’ of how people relate to happiness and wealth, and hence contain a kind of world wisdom”, people are different and have different definitions of happiness, “hence proverbs are too general for them to relate to”, in particular they “don’t give you enough advice in specific situations” and “the applicability of proverbs varies from one situation to the next”. She had problem understanding the proverbs only in two cases, and, like most students, looked for ways to accommodate clashing proverbs. She said that she would like to see the ethnicity of the proverbs only after the experiment, as she feels that, had they been shown to her in advance, her ratings would have been affected by stereotypes. She also said she had enjoyed the whole exercise.

As far as her relationship with wealth was concerned, she said that she was taught by her parents that “it is not so much money but the love of it [that is the problem], then it becomes your idol”, reflecting a Christian upbringing. She agreed with the proverb that “the best things in life are free”, such as nature, creation and love. At the same time, money “unifies the world, brings people together, it seems this is the only way we have been able to put people together”. For her, knowledge and learning, from which comes wisdom, are more important than wealth, (pleasant speech, too, is more important than wealth). “Wisdom can´t be acquired at university, which can be very intellectual, but the people [teaching at university can be] not very wise…The events in your life teach you wisdom”. She remarked: “I have learnt a lot from the proverbs exercise, but what do I do with it?”; she felt that students would benefit from looking at different situations to which they can apply proverbs, ”then proverbs would teach you wisdom”. In other words, a tutor needs to apply the proverbs to real life situations, or make up real life situations for the students to apply the proverbs to.

Student D

For this Slovak student proverbs are “common wisdom”. Only two or three proverbs were hard to understand, and the student felt that some prior explanation (or interpretation) of these difficult proverbs by the tutor would have been useful. She thought that had she been shown the ethnicity of proverbs before taking the exercise, her rankings might have been affected as stereotypes exist (a future avenue of research could be to explore whether stereotypes affect students’ evaluations of proverbs). She thought that there is wisdom in proverbs, as they are observed over hundreds of years and have stood the test of time. Proverbs “have general but not universal applicability both across time and space”. She found the whole discussion using proverbs useful to (a) “help students not follow money blindly before you go for very long hours of work in your new job”; (b) reflect on what brings happiness; and (c) although at university one learns plenty of theory, “you’re not encouraged to look for your place in the theory, if you fit into it or not, but with proverbs you do”. Although she finds some proverbs not to be necessarily true, she can still find meaning in them; for example, “Whoever wants everything loses everything” need not be true, but she thinks it’s a call to caution.

The student appreciated seeing the negative side of money, e.g. although money enables one to buy whatever one wants, “the bigger your bank balance, the more it takes over your life”; also, as a result of having money, “you can stop thinking about the people around you”, in that money distracts you from what is important, i.e. the people around you. “Money gives you access to things, but you can become confused as to what really makes you happy”, so that “money gives you the illusion of happiness.” “People are [biologically] programmed to make other people happy” and “sharing makes people enjoy what they have, [it] gives meaning to wealth”. She gave some proverbs herself: “Money can consume you”, “Money shows you who you are”. Slovakia was poor under the Austrian Empire and the Soviets, but with the EU wealth has been increasing and people are starting to wonder about the value of money (like people in the UK who take part in activities such as yoga).

Student E

This British student of Pakistani ethnicity felt that if there had been a more boxes to choose from in the questionnaire, near the end of the exercise he would have selected a different box, showing a change in attitude with regards to money’s ability to buy happiness. He found only 2 or 3 proverbs difficult; also some could be interpreted in different ways, e.g. in the case of “Money is like smoke”, smoke could be comparable to cigarette smoke, which is hazardous to health. As with most other students, when two proverbs clashed, the student thought there was truth in both. The exercise helped him to be much more aware of the need to be considerate towards others, as quite a few proverbs describe how money affects our relationship with others adversely. He felt it was “good to teach proverbs, it has opened my eyes”.

According to this student, “When the foundation (of one’s life) is money, and when the money is gone, [your] foundation falls”, so that money can be a misplaced source of security. Instead, the student felt that family and religion (Islam) were reliable foundations. The student mentioned the proverb “If you don’t respect money, it won’t respect you”, for example if one gambles; also a key question for him is “Do you control money or does money control you?”; if it controls you, then, citing a proverb, “Money makes worship”. Like other students, he felt that it was good to struggle when earning one’s wealth (in agreement with the proverb “By labour comes wealth”) because then “you appreciate what you have”; also the student’s father had studied hard, and now his children were benefiting from this. Again like other students, the student thought that more money need not result in more happiness as money brought problems, friends could be false, the threat of robberies, kidnappings and murder increased and jealousy could be instigated. He was impressed that I (the interviewer) was able to successfully question his beliefs during the interview, about which he claimed to be normally very confident. Because “Wealth and happiness, like smoke, vanish”, he felt it’s better to have spiritual wealth than physical wealth, which cannot be stolen. He strongly agreed that “Wealth counts not so much as goodwill nor as knowledge and pleasant speech”, as “you can’t buy class”. He claimed that religion acts as a protective tool in that it ensures (and reassures) that if someone is rich, he would not misuse his wealth, e.g. on gambling or smoking. The student agrees that “Whoever wants everything loses everything”, because “you’ alienate the people around you”, who are “fundamental for your happiness and well-being”.    

Conclusion

Students found the proverbs used in the exercise on the whole truthful and negative about the effect of wealth on one’s well-being, in contrast with what they are taught in economics classes. In general students are aware that money has positive as well as negative effects; proverbs make these effects clear and explicit.

There is some evidence of transformative learning as a result of being exposed to the proverbs exercise, with 7 students moving away from the belief that money can buy happiness, and 3 towards it. Interestingly, when proverbs clash, students do not reject any of them, but find ways to reconcile them or to apply them to different situations, showing respect for the wisdom which, in their view, proverbs embody. Finally, there is no evidence that students agree more with proverbs of their ethnicity than with proverbs of other ethnicities.

Contributor profiles