Myths, monsters and curses in accounting education

This article is based on a presentation by Paul Jennings and Toby York at the BAFA Accounting Education Special Interest Group conference in Durham, England in May 2023.

The mythical monster

Theseus and the Minotaur in the Labyrinth (1861) by Edward Burne-Jones.
Original: Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. Public domain.

In Greek mythology, the Minotaur was a violent, flesh-eating, half-bull and half-man. It was confined to a supposedly unsolvable underground labyrinth beneath the Cretan palace of Knossos. Every seven years, seven young men and women from Athens were despatched into the maze to feed the Minotaur. 

Theseus, an Athenian prince, volunteered to navigate the labyrinth to slay the monster. Before entering Ariadne, the King of Crete’s daughter, gave him a ball of thread (called a clew!) to trail behind him so he could find his way out. Theseus successfully killed the Minotaur and escaped from the labyrinth. 

He went on to desert Ariadne and indirectly caused his father’s suicide. So, he wasn’t an unmitigated hero, but for our purposes, the point of the story is his slaying of the Minotaur in the labyrinth. Or more specifically his (or Ariadne’s) successful strategy of focusing on the maze, not the monster.

The curse of knowledge

Of course, we’re not here to talk about the Greek myths, but basic accounting — debits, credits, and financial statement elements. You’re probably an expert, so it’s unlikely we can tell you anything you don’t already know. You’ve, no doubt, been teaching these concepts successfully, some of you, for many years.

What we can tell you, however, is that experts acquire their knowledge mysteriously. They can perform at a high level without full comprehension of what they’re doing or how they achieved their mastery. In our story, you might say that they have a detailed understanding of the labyrinth, but it’s intuitive or implied knowledge. 

Much of what experts do is invisible even to themselves.

Roger Kneebone ⁠1

They don’t know what they do know. They’re so familiar with it that they can no longer see the complexity of their expertise. It’s become the way they see the world — it’s just how the world works. So it’s difficult for them to understand why non-experts can’t see what they see. 

Ray Land and Jan Meyer ⁠2 describe this effect in terms of threshold concepts. Once you cross a threshold you experience a different way of knowing and your previous struggles and difficulties immediately disappear. It’s somewhat related to the curse of knowledge. And like any kind of curse, it’s not easy to dispel.

Educators, however, cannot afford the luxury of living under a curse. Your job requires you to pass on your expertise to others — a shift from you to them. It’s a relationship of care that requires you to think about your thinking. It requires you to break free of the curse of knowledge. This is harder than you might imagine, even if you successfully identify the sources of what Meyer and Land call troublesomeness and stuck places for students.

Debits and credits

When you learned the basics of accounting, maybe it was difficult, but you got there. You also know that, to begin with, your students will struggle too. So you tell them to put the work in, just as you did.

It’s a rite of passage, isn’t it? To slay the monster of debits and credits. Learn the rules. Use the tools. Debits on the left, credits on the right, DEAD CLIC and T-accounts. These are our weapons of choice. We reassure students that if they use these often enough they too will slay the monster, cross the threshold and become an expert.

But are we sending our students into a labyrinth with tools to kill a monster but no thread to help them navigate their way around the maze? Like the Athenians who perished, we’re perhaps so focussed on the monster that we’ve neglected the maze. We might go further and say that the monster doesn’t exist. Because there’s no such thing as a debit, and there’s no such thing as a credit. 

Let us explain. When you say debit or credit, what specifically do you mean?

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