Thrift as an Ideology: An Interdisciplinary Survey of Literature

Kimberly Downing Robinson and Erik Carlson, University of Arkansas-Fort Smith

Introduction: This 16-week interdisciplinary course was developed in response to the need for liberal arts majors to consider economic principles in their daily lives. Many of our students do not understand basic thrift or worse practice false economy in the business of their daily lives, habits that effectively impoverish them. Through a survey of literature, students will discuss terms such as cost, value, prudence, temperance, currency, labor, laborer, false economy, principal, interest, resources, recycling, and up-cycling. This course encourages students to consider thrift not only as a virtue but also as an ongoing ideology that has shaped Western thinking, ending with a consideration of environmental concerns and their cost as we move forward into the twenty-first century.

Beginning with the medieval period through the present day, the semester is structured chronologically, broken out into two week increments, each increment offering choices to the instructor for readings and discussion. Also, a teacher’s particular area of specialization might dictate one period’s readings over others. Deirdre McCloskey’s essay, “Thrift as a Virtue, Historically Criticized,” outlines many other possibilities, as well. Other national literatures could be substituted for what is on offer here to produce a more varied global/world literature(s) survey.  Mid-term is used as a bridge between the older literatures to what is more contemporary so that students can create connections through their writing and classroom discussion. Obviously, many themes present in these selections, and while this course highlights thrift as an ideology, we anticipate that other themes will naturally be discussed as students work to create a web of critical associations and construct meaning.

Practitioners of thrift make choices every day which might seem to depart from mainstream protocols. Indeed, thrift as a lifestyle revolves around the element of choice. For each literary period, there are selections from literature, art, and film, in addition to a brief rationale for their inclusion. Realizing that one textbook does not presently exist that addresses the scope of this course and in keeping with the course’s theme of thrift, a chart is included outlining where these texts presently reside on-line although, obviously, this list of choices is not all-inclusive and is subject to change. However, most, if not all, may be found on-line in very readable editions through sites such as Project Gutenberg,, Google Books, and/or excerpted from hard copy and scanned into .jpg files and loaded onto the course homepage. Audio and video selections are also available on-line through Youtube and Hulu, for example. The Background Reading/Options for a Book List cites several sources which, if not chosen for student reading, could be used for social, cultural, and historical perspective(s) from which to teach.

Rather than learn a complete literary, social, or cultural history of any given period, students are encouraged through the readings, classroom discussions, and writing assignments to use these texts to foster a personal examination of thrift. Included are suggestions for three formal paper assignments, each following the following format: background, pre-writing questions, a writing prompt, and writing guidelines.

Course Design (pdf)