'Moses Maimonides said... that’s what you’re supposed to do'

Maimonides in the classroom: The research that led Angrist to the Nobel

Much of the US-born economist’s work has focused on Israel’s education system, in particular its classroom sizes, which are based on a Talmudic theory

Joshua Angrist (Screen capture: YouTube)
Joshua Angrist (Screen capture: YouTube)

Joshua Angrist, part of a trio that won the economics Nobel Prize on Monday, has used, in much of his research on natural experiments, the Israeli education system’s reliance on a theory by Maimonides.

Angrist and Guido W. Imbens won their half of the award (the other half went to David Card) for working out the methodological issues that allow economists to draw solid conclusions about cause and effect even when they cannot carry out studies according to strict scientific methods.

The Nobel committee said the three shared the prize for providing “new insights about the labor market” and for showing “what conclusions about cause and effect can be drawn from natural experiments.”

But much of Angrist’s work has been based on his research in Israel, and in particular on education and labor.

Last year, Angrist told the Econ Focus publication by the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond how he began to work on natural experiments, the area in which he eventually won the Nobel Prize, with research focused on the Israeli education system, which has maximum classroom sizes based on a theory by 12th-century Jewish scholar Maimonides.

Angrist said that the research was initially born of the fact that he was living in Israel at the time.

“One thing I learned is that empiricists should work on stuff that’s nearby,” he said. “There’s a temptation to just mimic whatever the Americans and British are doing. I think a better strategy is to say, ‘Well, what’s special and interesting about where I am?'”

Students arrive to the classroom on the first day of the new academic year, at Orot Etzion School in the West Bank settlement of Efrat, September 1, 2021. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)

“It turned out that the Israeli school system had a lot of interesting things going on. One was that they had a rule about class size that can actually be dated back to the Talmud,” Angrist said, explaining that Maimonides had determined that the size of a group of students must be capped at 40.

“Even though the details of the rule have changed, we call it Maimonides’ Rule, because the biblical sage and scholar Moses Maimonides had said in the 13th century that that’s what you’re supposed to do,” Angrist said. “If you’re in a grade cohort of 41, they’ll split your class because you’re over the cap of 40; if you’re in a cohort of 39, you’ll stay lumped. So you get a nice natural experiment there.”

Angrist said that he and colleagues continued to use the Israeli education system when they repeated the research a number of years later using a larger sample size, and came up with different findings.

Maimonides (photo credit: Wikimedia commons)
Maimonides (Wikimedia commons)

“In the newer, much larger sample, there’s not much relationship, basically none, between class size and achievement. I can’t say that we actually figured out why it changed. Overall, classes have gotten smaller in Israel; maybe we’re into a zone where it doesn’t matter much anymore,” he said.

Angrist has also written several papers about education and labor conditions in Gaza and the West Bank and in 2001 published a paper on the impact of teacher training in Jerusalem’s public schools.

He also served as a member of Israel’s Finance Ministry Working Group on Israeli-Palestinian Labor Market Relations in 1994.

Shortly after graduating from Oberlin College in Ohio, Angrist served as a paratrooper in the Israel Defense Forces. He later taught at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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