I am teaching mathematical statistics and part of this is large sample theory. I would like to discuss some methods that do not focus on asymptotics and refer to J. M. Keynes quote

In the long run, we are all dead.

I am a bit afraid some students might find this quote a bit too strong. Could this quote be considered a bit too strong to be presented to 3rd year undergraduate students in the UK?

  • 72
    If you use the quote, in the long run you should be okay...
    – Dan Romik
    Mar 20, 2019 at 18:32
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    @emory Yeah... Keynes's version was better. Mar 21, 2019 at 9:51
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    Could you elaborate a bit more for those of us who don't understand why this saying this might be a problem at all?
    – Szabolcs
    Mar 21, 2019 at 10:17
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    A bit of cultural difference perhaps, but why is this even a question? They are adults.
    – rath
    Mar 21, 2019 at 15:18
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    3rd year undergraduate!? When will they be ready for it, when they are post-docs? Are you ready for it, yet, OP? :)
    – Stumbler
    Mar 21, 2019 at 19:09

6 Answers 6


Opinion, of course, but I think it is fine. It is often quoted in fact. While your students probably still think of themselves as immortal, they almost certainly aren't. No one should really take offense at basic biological certainties.

It is, in fact, a corrective on much illogical thinking, which is why it has lasted.

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    "While your students probably still think of themselves as immortal, they almost certainly aren't." I confess, I laughed out loud at this statement. Mar 20, 2019 at 20:05
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    Every time I hear Keynes' "In the long run we're all dead" it seems to be justifying some short-sighted thinking. In the long-run, there's future you, and you may well have a family, and you certainly have a community, and you will one day leave a legacy - that statement reveals a lack of regard for those things.
    – Aaron Hall
    Mar 21, 2019 at 14:53
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    @AaronHall while that is true, there is no point in only focusing on the far future and forgetting the here and now, which is the point of the quote. I think that it should not be seen as advocating unbounded hedonism, hence the curt and dry wording. But, yes, it tends to be misused a bit.
    – Chieron
    Mar 21, 2019 at 15:23
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    I always hear jokes about young adults thinking they're immortal, but when I was a young adult, I didn't know anone who actually thought this... do adults not remember being young? Of course young people know they're going to die, they just don't think about it often. Healthy adults don't either... It wouldn't be "shocking" to anyone to mention death.
    – user91988
    Mar 21, 2019 at 15:34
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    @only_pro Nobody thinks that young adults sit around declaring to one another "We are immortal!" When people say that young adults believe themselves to be immortal, they mean that young adults often behave rather recklessly, without really considering the consequences of their actions, as if they were immortal and those consequences don't exist. Mar 21, 2019 at 17:12

As a British person, I don't understand why you'd even consider that this quote might be inappropriate. If you feel that it's a good way to get your message across, there's no reason not to use it. However, if you're uncomfortable with it, for whatever reason, don't use it.


Writers often talk about the need to "kill your darlings". This refers to the fact that it's often easy to become enamored with one's own clever ideas and turns of phrase, whether or not they actually accomplish what is needed in the larger context.

Following this advice, I would suggest preparing the lecture without the phrase, simply to see how useful it really is. Come back to it a couple of days later, when you've had time enough to detach a bit, and see how well the lecture works. If the phrase is actually helpful and meaningful (as opposed to merely attention-grabbing), you can always add it back in then.

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    I would add that doses of "merely attention grabbing" stunts can be an important ingredient in lectures even if the attention grabbing isn't directly related to the material. (In this case the joke directly relates to the tools of the trade though.) Mar 20, 2019 at 15:54
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    The advice to kill one’s darling is a bit strong, don’t you think? Mar 21, 2019 at 20:55

Your students are not children. They are about twenty years old. If they have not yet accepted the idea of death, it's their problem, not yours. You are being paternalistic from trying to shield them from something so mundane.


Not in the UK, but I was in my 3rd year of college when I took an economics course that used that quote and that was the least of my concerns about that particular course. Of course, I feel like you'd be doing your students a bit of disservice if you don't provide a least a little of the context (which since you mention statistic / asymptotics I'm assuming you're aware of). What I remember is that the context was someone pointing out that following Keynesian economics, in the long run, you'll just have inflation and that was Keynes' reply to that critique. (To which I can envision another professor pointing out "and that's why Keynes was so often invited to all the parties")

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    No, the context is even simpler. A larger quote helps: "The long run is a misleading guide to current affairs. In the long run we are all dead. Economists set themselves too easy, too useless a task if in tempestuous seasons they can only tell us that when the storm is past the ocean is flat again.". He was merely arguing for interventionist policies, against the classical economic position that interventions do more harm than good (and that waiting for the ocean to calm down is better than trying to force it to calm down; curious Keynes would use an example where we don't try to fight :)).
    – Luaan
    Mar 21, 2019 at 12:18
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    To Keynes, inflation wasn't even a consequence - it was a tool of his interventionist policies. For example, as a way to reduce the real earnings of people who aren't worth their real wages, without lowering the nominal wages or having them fired. He also stipulated that spending should be encouraged, while investment should be discouraged - if money loses value over time (monetary inflation), people are more likely to spend their income on consumption goods than, say, saving up for their retirement.
    – Luaan
    Mar 21, 2019 at 12:20

I have previously taught a similar course in the UK and would use a quote like this without concern. In my experience UG students are totally unconcerned about their eventual demise.

However, the point of including such aphorisms is that they allow you, the lecturer, to convey something with a bit more interest/ passion / excitement, your students probably won’t get much out of them directly. Thus, if you are uncomfortable about this quote then it isn’t going to serve its purpose and you should drop it.

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