by Jeremy Venook, AmeriCorps member serving on the Wellington Management team with McKay K-8 School
Freakonomics changed my life.
It was certainly not the first book to do so—as pretty much all of City Year Boston knows, that would be Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth—but when I came across Freakonomics in high school, I found within its pages remarkable insights that continue to guide my thinking to this day.
As the title suggests (and the subtitle, “A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything", reaffirms), Freakonomics is far from a conventional economic text. Eschewing dry discussions of supply and demand that normally make up the introduction to the topic, the authors, economist Steven Levitt and journalist Stephen Dubner, tackle strange and compelling questions that probe at the underlying systems of incentives and trade-offs that govern so much of human behavior. Answering a question comparing schoolteachers and sumo wrestlers, for example, explores the nuances of how and why people decide to cheat the system, while asking “What Makes a Perfect Parent?” provides a platform to explore everything from education to guns to baby names.
More important than the answers to these questions is the way Freakonomics introduces its readers to its deeper levels of inquiry. Never sacrificing their compellingly readable style, Levitt and Dubner walk the reader through the methods to their musings, deftly transitioning from colorful anecdotes to illustrative facts and figures. In doing so, the book tacitly reminds the reader to approach life with the same sense of wonder and curiosity. Where so much of social science can seem dense or even inscrutable, Freakonomics offers the refreshing change of making its points readily accessible to all, putting forth the powerful message that anybody can be a scholar with little more than an unusual question, a creative approach, and the tenacity to follow their answers through to the end.
Finally, two important points should be noted about Freakonomics. Strongly though I recommend the book for students in high school, as I was when I first encountered it, some parents may be turned off by the presence of swear words in the book, particularly in the chapter titled “Why Do Drug Dealers Still Live with Their Moms?.” In my opinion, these swear words are fully justified, intended to authentically represent the gang members who are the chapter’s focus. Second, the book drew significant scrutiny upon release for its discussion of the relation between abortion and crime rates. The topic, of course, is just as incendiary today as it was 11 years ago. However, I would contend that, even if one disagrees with the authors’ conclusion, the chapter exemplifies their combination of unique approach, thorough analysis, and outstanding writing style, and I highly recommend it for anybody interested in either topic.
As I have passed through high school into college and beyond, the insights I gained from my teenage readings of Freakonomics have helped provide the foundation for my continuing studies. That now, as I re-read it almost a decade later, I find myself questioning some of the book’s conclusions is a testament to its influence on me: the book helped open the door for my own learning, in turn leading me to seek out my own answers and forge my own pathways to understanding. Now, as a City Year AmeriCorps Member, I aim to continue the book’s legacy and teach my students the methods of questioning—and, perhaps, just as importantly, answering—as they go forward through middle school and beyond.