Our Job Is To Help Them Make Something Of It

Now, after more than a year out of the classroom, Wataru, 16, has returned to school, though not a normal one. He and around two dozen teenagers like him are part of the inaugural class of Japan’s first e-sports high school, a private institution in Tokyo that opened last year.
The academy, which mixes traditional class work with hours of intensive video game training, was founded with the intention of feeding the growing global demand for professional gamers. But educators believe they have stumbled onto something more valuable: a model for getting students like Wataru back in school.


I came across this article in the New York Times, and found it to be fascinating. Wataru, the sixteen year old mentioned in the article, had dropped out of school after the pandemic, because “he was getting nothing from school”. He preferred to stay at home and play video games the whole day.

This school though, the one featured in the article, is a school in which you’re taught competition strategies for games such as Fortnite and Valorant. Or you might be given – and this was my favorite sentence in the article – “a scientific lecture about the relative merits of Street Fighter characters”. And it’s not just theory, of course – post this lecture, the students then formed groups to put the lesson into action.

This is what a classroom looks like:


If you’re curious, and are able to speak and understand the language, here’s what the infrastructure of the school looks like – it has forty Galleria XA7C-R37 gaming PC’s. The curriculum includes the following genres of video games: FPS, third-person shooter, RTS and MOBA. I don’t know what these genres are, for I don’t play video games all that much.

But I applaud the initiative, and hope it scales, both within Japan and in other parts of the world.

You may ask why I applaud a school that teaches students how to play video games. And my answer is that I’m actually quite agnostic about how an educational institute is weird. All I ask is that it be sufficiently weird in at least one way. This particular school is weird about video games, but what about schools that are weird in other ways? What about a school that teaches you about dancing, for example?

Lynne’s gift for dancing was discovered by a doctor. She had been underperforming at school, so her mother took her to the doctor and explained about her fidgeting and lack of focus. After hearing everything her mother said, the doctor told Lynne that he needed to talk to her mother privately for a moment. He turned on the radio and walked out. He then encouraged her mother to look at Lynne, who was dancing to the radio. The doctor noted that she was a dancer, and encouraged Lynne’s mother to take her to dance school


And if you’ve been tempted to sneer while reading about these newfangled ideas about alternate education – “video games and dancing in schools! Hmph, whatever next?!” – note that the first story is from December 2022, while the other story is from sometime in the 1930’s. Everything with Sir Ken Robinson in it is always worth watching, but this video is a particularly fascinating one. Gillian Lynne’s story comes on at around the 15 minute mark, if you’d rather not watch the whole thing, but I hope you do.

But whether it is video games today or dancing a century ago – or whatever else might be around a hundred years from now, for that matter – the point isn’t about how young people learn best. Well, it is, but the first point that all of us would do well to internalize is that everybody learns differently.

And the idea that everybody learns best by sitting in a classroom and listening to a person drone on for hours on end is one that has been rejected by students year after year after year. But because it is cheap, scalable and easy to endlessly replicate, it is now a part of our culture. To the extent that we will think of students who are unable to be a part of this dreary ritual as being not normal.

Of course they’re not normal, none of them are. They’re special, in their own way, as all of us are. That was the message in the brilliant talk given by Sir Ken Robinson. That everybody is talented in their own way.

And his call to action at the end of the talk is the title of today’s blogpost.

Our job isn’t to browbeat our students into downcast and sullen obedience and compliance. Our job is to figure out what motivates them to learn, by figuring out their special talent.

And then to help them make something of it.

The End of the College Submission (Thank God)

This blog post is a riff on Seth’s post from the other day, titled “The End of the High School Essay“:

New York City schools are trying to ban GPT3 because it’s so good at writing superficial essays that it undermines the command structure of the essay as a sorting tool. An easy thing to assign (and a hard thing to grade) just became an easy task to hack.
High school essays had a huge range of problems, and banning the greatest essay device since Danny Dunn and his Homework Machine is not the answer. In fact, it’s a great opportunity to find a better way forward.
The first challenge of the essay was the asymmetrical difficulty in giving useful feedback. 30 essays, 5 minutes each, do the math. It doesn’t scale, and five minutes isn’t even close to enough time to honor the two hours you asked a student to put into the work.


Exams in almost all of the colleges and universities I have taught at don’t mean a thing. The students know this, the faculty knows this, the examination department knows this, but we all keep up the charade that Meaningful Work Is Being Done through the conduct of examinations.

Newsflash: there is no meaningful work being done. It is a complete farce.

Some universities choose to not pay faculty members for correcting papers at the end of the semester. Let’s assume a college is paying a visiting faculty member two thousand rupees per hour to teach a class. They might slip in a line towards the end: this also includes examination duties. In English, this means that if you teach a thirty hour course, you will be paid sixty thousand rupees for those thirty hours. So far, so good. But “also includes examination duties” means that for a batch of (say) a hundred and twenty students, you are also expected to design question papers (a set of two, usually) and correct a hundred and twenty answer sheets.

Even if you assume that one is able to correct paper after paper without taking a break, with five minutes being the time taken per paper, that still means that at least ten hours worth of work. Which means, of course, that you are not being paid two thousand rupees per hour, but rather fifteen hundred. Accounting is a subject that may well be taught at universities – that doesn’t necessarily mean that it is practised at universities.

Some other universities offer to pay forty rupees per answer sheet corrected. Which is better than zero, admittedly, but we then run into the problem of incentives. If you’re paid two thousand rupees to teach, and forty rupees per paper to correct answer sheets, how many answer sheets should you correct in an hour to “make” the same wage? And if fifty answer sheets being corrected in an hour is clearly far too many, how do you expect this incentive to work? Or do we teach our students that incentives matter, but ignore this point ourselves?

Students know the farcical nature of examinations all too well. The pandemic took away that last remaining fig leaf of dignity that surrounds examinations, and the ostrich-in-the-sand approach that most universities have adopted post-pandemic is that of closed-book, no-internet-access examinations. Quite how this pen-and-paper examination is supposed to prepare students for what they will do in the real world is a question nobody wants to raise, let alone answer.

And so students quite reasonably ask for “the pattern of the paper”, or the “important questions” or the “important topics” before an examination. They are, in other words, seeking to minimize efforts in order to maximize marks scored in an examination. The tragedy lies in the fact that academia is supposed to be about maximizing learning. But on and on we go, in our mad headlong rush to maximize NAAC scores, difficult and uncomfortable questions about examinations be damned.

But all that these pen-and-paper examinations do is to train students to produce mediocre output that AI can already produce – and of a much better quality than these scribbled answers in answer sheets will ever produce. That’s not a knock against students; it is praise for how good AI has already gotten.

Think about it, for this is a point that bears repetition. Our examination system is geared towards training students to do a worse job than AI, by definition. And for this, we take money from students and their families, and we call it “an education”. Pah.

Now, I’m well aware of the fact that this is not applicable in all cases. There are some subjects/courses in the social sciences where these kind of examinations are entirely justified. And medical and engineering fields is a whole separate story. But I’m not arguing for an extreme solution – I’m saying that the pendulum has swung far too much over into Luddite territory when it comes to examinations and submissions. We need to wake up and smell the AI, and adjust accordingly.

But how? Well, the easy thing to do is to say that’s a difficult answer to give in a blogpost, but here’s Seth Godin again:

The answer is simple but difficult: Switch to the Sal Khan model. Lectures at home, classes are for homework.

When we’re on our own, our job is to watch the best lecture on the topic, on YouTube or at Khan Academy. And in the magic of the live classroom, we do our homework together.

In a school that’s privileged enough to have decent class sizes and devices in the classroom, challenge the students to actually discuss what they’ve read or learned. In real-time, teach them to not only create arguments but to get confident enough to refute them. Not only can the teacher ask a student questions, but groups of students can ask each other questions. Sure, they can use GPT or other tools to formulate where they begin, but the actual work is in figuring out something better than that.
At first, this is harder work for the teacher, but in fact, it’s what teachers actually signed up to do when they become teachers.

This is far less cohesive and controllable than the industrial model of straight rows and boring lectures. It will be a difficult transition indeed. But it’s simple to think about: If we want to train people to take initiative, to question the arguments of others, to do the reading and to create, perhaps the best way to do that is to have them do that.

We’ll never again need to hire someone to write a pretty good press release, a pretty good medical report or a pretty good investor deck. Those are instant, free and the base level of mediocre. The opportunity going forward remains the same: Bringing insight and guts to interesting problems.


Kill our current mode of examinations, and help build a world in which we have passionate teachers who help students create. Not a world in which we minimize soul, and maximize those stupid, accursed “marks”.

But on and on we go. Pah.

Will Classroom Teaching Change This Semester Onwards?

The new semester is underway in some colleges and universities, and others will begin soon enough. Across the country, a new bunch of students will be attending their first semesters in undergrad or postgrad courses.

This is both old news and news at the same time. There’s is nothing new in this if you take the long view, but given that this is the first semester post the end (?) of the pandemic, it is very new and very different.

Why different? Because we’ll be teaching students who have spent two years learning at/from home, and the way they have learnt is very different from the way they will learn in this semester.

  • Physical attendance will be required. Not by me, to be clear, but colleges and universities will require it (of course).
  • Usage of internet enabled devices might be frowned upon. Again, not by me, to be clear, but there will be a fair few number of colleges, universities and professors who will require complete attention, and that will mean no phones, tablets and laptops allowed.
    Let me be clear: I personally don’t mind usage of these devices in classes, but don’t hold very strong views on the subject, and am well aware of the fact that there are a large number of professors who hold very strong anti-device views. How this will play out is something I am very interested in seeing this semester.
  • Discussions, debates, arguments will be centre-stage once again in a classroom, and this time with many more people involved, whether they like it or not. Have we lost the skill? Will there be new norms given the last two years? Will it be more difficult to get discussions going, or will it be easier than ever before?
  • Every single professor I have spoken to has bemoaned the lack of eye-contact and visual cues while teaching. How will we adapt to having these advantages with us once again?
  • How screwed up are attention spans post pandemic? Not just because of ‘taking’ classes from home, but because of the pandemic itself – and how will these affect both teaching and learning?
  • Have students learnt to think of material available online as definitely being a substitute for an in-class experience, as opposed to a complement? And if so, are they likely to take less kindly to some of the teaching they will experience offline? And if so, how will colleges and universities respond? As my favorite blogger says, solve for the equilibrium.
  • Do pen and paper exams make sense anymore? If yes, why? If not, how are we thinking about substituting for them? Are these discussions taking place in higher-ed institutions across the country?
  • How should our pedagogy change? More videos shown in class? More interactive content? More discussions?
  • Will all classes be recorded and shared with students? Should they? If not, why not?
  • What percentage of subjects/courses offered in a semester will be offered ‘remotely’?
    • This is not just about habit formation. The one lesson that all course coordinators learnt during the pandemic (including yours truly) was that we need no longer be restricted by geography when it comes to hiring really good profs. But now that all classes are offline, should we just give up on profs we know are good, simply because they are not located in the same city/town as your campus? If the truth is to lie somewhere in the middle, how do we decide?
  • How will students solve what I’ve taken to calling the 2x problem? Imagine listening to the prof speak at 1x – how quaint (and quite possibly frustrating) it might seem to post-pandemic cohorts of students!

I don’t know the answers to even one of these questions. But in the semester that is coming up, I hope to spend a lot of time talking to folks who are in the higher-ed business to understand how classroom teaching will evolve from here on in. It promises to be a fascinating five months!

Here is an old blog post in which I predict that classroom teaching will decline from here on in, and wither away in the long run. And here is one in which I try to force myself to take the opposite position.

Thoughts, opinions and feedback is always welcome, but in the case of this blog post, especially so. If you are teaching a course in this semester and wish to chat, please drop me a line at ashish at econforeverybody dot com.

Brad DeLong’s Learnings from the Pandemic Years

Office hours on Zoom, for one, which strikes me as a pretty good idea too.

I think I’m going to keep my office hours remote and on zoom—make them mandatory for students I think I need to see. Calling people into the office if they aren’t showing up for office hours—that seems a little heavy-handed to me. Phone calls with people you do not already know—that is not terribly effective. But zoom! It is much better than a phone call, and does not (or does not any longer) seem too heavy-handed.


But his other idea is something I would love to do, but have always failed at:

The other innovation I want to adopt is for courses in which each week is a book. Having the group “discuss” the book for an hour, and then call up the author on zoom—that seems to me to be a very good innovation. It is Barry Eichengreen’s. It is a wonderful thing. It should become the rule rather than the exception in the future.


I have tried this in multiple ways over the years in my classes, but nothing has really worked. My utopian classroom would be one in which every single student walks in having read the prescribed book, and we run out of time while discussing different aspects of the book.

What usually ends up happening is an involved discussion with the three students or so who have read the book, while the rest of the class listens in politely for as long as they can bear to. I should be clear – I do not mandate attendance in my classes, and I don’t blame the students for not having read the book – but I sure wish they had!

From the Sokratic point of view, the purpose of the entire educational establishment can only be to create opportunities for the Dialectic to manifest itself—and question and answered dialogue between teacher and student, between student and student, and between student and figment of the student’s imagination. Good educational systems maximize those opportunities. Bad educational systems do not.


Education is about conversations, and conversations cannot happen at scale. My best learnings have happened over relaxed conversations with professors in their offices, over cups of coffee, and on some especially delightful occasions, over mugs of beer – but not in a classroom.

But how to have those in-depth conversations with as many students as possible, as often as possible, without making the experience too expensive for all concerned is the trillion dollar question in higher education, and I don’t think we’re anywhere close to solving it.

But to circle back to the original excerpt, office hours on Zoom might be a good place to start.

Also, if you teach economics, and are looking for a wonderful syllabi to discuss in depth with your students, you couldn’t do much better than How to Change the World, taught by Chris Blattman.

Make Examinations Relevant Again

Alice Evans (and if you are unfamiliar with her work, here’s a great way to begin learning more about it) recently tweeted about a topic that is close to my heart:

And one of the replies was fascinating:

I’ve asked students to create podcasts in the past for assignments, but not yet for final or semester end examinations, because I am constrained by the rules of whichever university I’m teaching in. There are some that allow for experimentation and off-the-beaten-path formats, but the vast majority are still in “Answer the following” mode.

But ever since I came across that tweet, I’ve been thinking about how we could make examinations in this country better, more relevant, and design them in such a way that we test skills that are applicable to the world we live in today, rather than the world of a 100 years ago.

To me, the ideal examination would include the following:

  • The ability to do fast-paced research on a collaborative basis
  • The ability to work as a team to be able to come up with output on the basis of this research
  • The ability to write (cogently and concisely) about how you as an individual think about the work that your team came up with

What might such an examination look like? Well, it could take many forms, but here’s one particular form that I have been thinking about.

Imagine an examination for a subject like, say, macroeconomics. Here’s a question I would love to ask students to think about for such an examination today. “Do you and your team find yourself on Team Transitory or Team Persistent when it comes to inflation today? The answer, in whatever format, should make sense to a person almost entirely unacquainted with economics.”

This would be a three hour long examination. Say the exam is for a cohort of 120 students. I’d split the class up into 10 groups of 12 each, and ask each group to spend one hour thinking about this question, and doing the research necessary to come up with an answer. They can discuss the question, split the work up (refer to textbooks, refer to material online, watch YouTube videos, discuss with each other, appoint a leader – whatever it is that they need to do) and come up with an outline of what their answer is.

The next hour would be coming up with the answer itself: write a blogpost about it, or record audio, or record video. The format is up to them, as is the length. The only requirement is that the output must answer the question, and must include reasons for their choice. Whether the background information that is required to make sense is to be given (or referenced, or skipped altogether) is entirely up to the students.

And the final hour must be spent on a short write-up where each individual student submits their view about their team’s submission. Given that the second hour’s output was collaborative, does the student as an individual agree with the work done? Why? Or why not? What would the student have liked to have done differently? This part must be written, for the ability to write well is (to me) non-negotiable.

To me, this examination will encompass research (which can only be done in an hour if the students are familiar enough with the subject at hand, so they need to have done their homework), collaboration and the ability to think critically about the work that they were a part of. Grading could be split equally on a fifty-fifty basis: half for the work done collaboratively, and half for the individual essay submission.

Sure, there would be some problems. Students might object to the groups that have been formed or students might end up quarreling so much in the first two hours that they’re not left with much time. Or something else altogether, which is impossible to foresee right now.

But I would argue that such examinations are more reflective of the work that the students will actually do in the world outside. More reflective than “Answer the following” type questions, that is.

The point isn’t to defend this particular format. The point is to ask if the current format needs to change (yes!) and if so how (this being only one suggestion).

Right now, examinations provide a 19th century solution to very real 21st century problems, and their irrelevance becomes ever more glaring by the day.

We need to talk about examinations, and we aren’t.

Why, exactly, might mandatory offline attendance be better?

I’d ended yesterday’s post by asking two questions: why is mandatory offline attendance in classrooms a good thing, and why are offline examinations better than online ones. I’ll try and list out arguments for mandatory offline attendance in today’s post.

A quick note before we begin: I don’t think mandatory offline attendance is better. I think a hybrid system is here to stay, no matter how reluctant universities and college are about it. But it is precisely for this reason that I want to write out this post – I want to force myself to “write for the other side”. Doing so helps me understand that point of view better, and two things are likely to happen as a consequence. I can sharpen my own arguments as a consequence of understanding theirs better. Second, maybe I’ll end up modifying my views by better understanding theirs.

  • Conversations are much more likely to take place in a classroom than in an online setting. Being physically present in a classroom along with others and with the professor dramatically increases the chance that a conversation is initiated and sustained. I can personally attest to this, and I am fairly confident that most people involved in academia (students and teachers) will do so as well. To the extent that you think conversations about whatever is being taught is a good thing (and I most certainly do), offline classes are definitively better.
  • Peer pressure to attend a class, and to listen once you are in class is much higher in an offline setting.
  • A classroom is conducive to learning. Your bedroom or living room, no matter how comfortable, is not. To the extent that you think priming is a real phenomenon with tangible, measurable outcomes, offline classes are likely to be better.
  • There are positive externalities (spillovers) to attending offline classes. Serendipitous conversations in corridors with people from other classes or professors, being able to walk into a professor’s office for a chat after class, the continuation of discussions of what happened in class over a cup of chai at the canteen are all much much more likely after having attended an offline class.
  • The over-the-shoulder effect tends to be underrated by folks in favor online classes. A student peering over your shoulder at your work can in a glance offer a quick correction or tip, and it is still much easier for a professor to walk through a physical classroom to take in the level of understanding of the students. VR, AR and metaverses may well be on their way, but we aren’t quite there just yet.
  • There is a performative aspect to offline classes that is all but impossible to recreate online. Watching a physics professor teach about pendulums by climbing onto one requires a physically present, and obviously involved audience. It will not have the same impact if conducted online. And my hunch is that the class is likely to be recalled much more effectively if you were physically present in class.
  • Retention based on visual cues works better than most other memory techniques, and visual cues are much more likely in a social setting than the cozy comfort of your home. See this as an example of what I am trying to get at (and please don’t hesitate to correct me if I’m wrong!)
  • What else?

Is Online Education Transitory?

Students are finally making their way back into colleges across the country. Omicron, and whatever variant follows next will make the road bumpy, and there remains a significant chance that there will be some U-turns along the way. But we’re finally limping back towards something approaching normalcy. Or so one hopes.

But the transition isn’t smooth, and cultural adjustments are going to be tricky. What sort of cultural adjustments? Here goes:

  • Lockdowns and restrictions have been in place long enough for a culture of online learning to have emerged. In the context of this blog post, I define the word culture to mean social behaviors and norms that have emerged among students during the past eighteen (or so) months. There is more to culture than that, I am well aware, but it is this specific aspect of the word that I am focusing on.
  • Students across India have gotten used to the following aspects of this culture:
    • Listening to a lecture that is being delivered need not be a community based event. You can listen to a lecture alone, anywhere, as opposed to along with your classmates in a classroom.
    • Listening to a lecture need not by a synchronous event. That is, you don’t need to listen when the professor is speaking. One can listen later, as per one’s own convenience.
    • Listening to a lecture need not be a 1x event. Amit Varma’s point about being able to listen to somebody else speaking at even 3x applies to lectures as much as it does to podcasts. Students who find a particular professor boring may even argue that the point applies with even greater force to lectures than it does to podcasts!
    • Students feel much more comfortable calling out online examinations for the farce that they are. And let me be clear about this: online examinations are a farce. If you are a part of any university’s administration in this country, I urge you to speak to students, their parents, and recruiters about this issue. I repeat, online examinations are a farce. This is important, and it needs to be called out. We’re very much in Emperor’s New Clothes territory in this regard, and that is where the cultural aspect comes in.
  • At the moment, most colleges (if not all) are not making classroom attendance mandatory, at least for the students. Students may be on campus, but not necessarily in the classroom. Most students I have spoken to (in a completely unscientific fashion, I should add, so this is strictly anecdotal) think this to be the best of all worlds. They are not at home, they are with friends, and they are not in a classroom. It doesn’t get better than this, as far as they are concerned.

So now, assuming you find yourself in even limited agreement with what I have written above, think about the scenario I am about to outline. Imagine that you are a university administrator with the power to mandate offline attendance in classrooms and offline examinations for your students. And at some date in the foreseeable future, you decree that this must happen.

And some students come along and ask an entirely reasonable (to them, at any rate) question: why?

Why are offline attendance and offline examinations better than what we have right now?

What would your answers be?

How to Escape Education’s Death Valley by the Great Sir Ken Robinson

I’m not one for celebrating “days”, but I’ll happily admit being thankful that this video is scheduled for the 5th of September!

There’s No Say’s Law in Classroom Teaching

Yes, that’s not exactly what he said, but I’m going with the definition we all “know”. And I’m going to repurpose that popular definition for going on a rant about classroom teaching.

Supply does not create its own demand.

That is, the supply of education in the classroom does not create the demand for education in the classroom.

Do you have a memory of staring out the classroom window, having given up on waiting for time to move faster? My congratulations to you if you have never once experienced this emotion across school and college, because it was my only emotion in almost all classes I ever attended. And boredom of an excruciating nature was my only emotion because all classes were tremendously boring.

Some were instructive. Some teachers/professors really knew their stuff. Two professors, who I am lucky enough to still have as mentors, were the best professors I have ever had. But even they didn’t think it was their responsibility to inspire the class to learn more. A Walter Lewin type moment in a class that I attended? It has happened not more than one or two times across over two decades of sitting in classrooms.

And this is, even today, something that enrages me.

David Perell’s latest essay is the inspiration for this rant:

Inspiration is a uniquely human experience because it isn’t motivated by mere survival. It transcends the world of needs and lives in the world of wants. By doing so, inspiration stirs the mind. It’s no coincidence that the etymology of inspire is linked to “the breath of life.” As the sparkle of inspiration enters our bodies, we are animated with a video game style turbo-boost. Though a state of perpetual awe is the natural state for kids (which is why they learn so fast), it’s foreign to most adults. Too often, the wrinkles of age and the weight of responsibility silence the rush of epiphany.
Blinded by age, we can turn to cold rationality, valuing only what we can define and prioritize only what we can measure. When we do, we forget that the wisdom of an inspired spirit exceeds our ability to describe it. The less we insist on a justification for our curiosities, the more we can surrender to the engine of inspiration and let learning happen.


How do I teach my eight year old daughter to sum up the first n numbers? By asking her to memorize {(n*[n+1])/2} or by telling her Gauss’s story? Do I teach her Marathi and Hindi by asking her to read her textbook, or by introducing to her the shared civilizational wonder that is etymology?

Should I teach my students about how to think about macroeconomics by writing down equations and defining GDP, or should I begin with Gapminder? Should I draw the 2×2 matrix to explain the prisoner’s dilemma, or do I show students Golden Balls on YouTube? Should I tell students what monetary policy is, or do I ask them to play the Fed Chairman game? Should I tell them about demand and supply, or should I introduce to them the wonder that is kiviq.us?

Should students be taught about mass, velocity, friction, acceleration, arcs and circles, or should they be shown this video? How to motivate students at the start of a semester on statistics? Talk about the spice trade, and talk about brewing tea! I can go on and on, but I’ll stop here.

You see, in each of these cases, you don’t have to teach students the underlying concepts. To be clear, you can, and you should. But my point is you don’t have to – they’ll have developed the thirst to figure it out by themselves, because, you see, they can’t help it. Their curiosity has been piqued, or as David Perell puts it, they’ve been inspired.

And that, really, ought to be your job as a teacher or professor. To get students to go “Whoaaaaaa!”

Get that to happen, and then good luck trying to finish the class on time. I teach undergraduates and beyond, and I’m not suggesting that one should stop at inspiring students as a teacher. Papers will have to be read, books will have to be recommended, essays will have to be written – all of that is necessary, and absolutely should happen.

But each of these things are much more likely to be done (and willingly) if only you light the spark first. Reading Mishkin after you’ve played the Fed Chairman game isn’t a chore, it is a joy. Why, even Fudenberg Tirole stands a chance of being somewhat palatable if students have been first exposed to Games Indians Play, The Art of Strategy and The Evolution of Trust.

Every student who leaves college bored to death because of how stultifying classrooms are is a damning indictment of my tribe. We’ve failed to do right by them, and by extension have failed to do right by society.

What is wrong with higher education? A lot!

But David touched upon a raw nerve where I am concerned – the worst thing about those of us working in academia is that we fail to ask ourselves every single day a very important question: how can I inspire young people to want to learn more? Everything else is a distraction, this ought to be the mission.

Arjun Narayan asked Tyler Cowen this question recently:

You have the power to grant 100% more capital (that they deployed in their lifetime) to a person or institution who prematurely ran out of capital too soon. Who do you pick?


Substitute the word “enthusiasm” for “capital”, substitute “students” for “a person or institution” and you have my own personal mission in life. And I promise you, it is my mission because I am very much scratching my own itch.

We should all, at the margin, be learning better.

And the earlier we start, the better society will be.

Can Undergraduates Be Taught To Think Like Economists?

The title of today’s blogpost has been copied, word for word, from a blogpost I had linked to earlier (the fifth link in this post).

It’s been about two and a half years since I read that post. I would still like to believe that Deirdre McCloskey was wrong, and that you can too teach undergraduates to think like economists. But well, perhaps the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

A common goal for principles of economics courses is to teach students to “think like economists.” I’ve always been a little skeptical of that high-sounding goal. It seems like a lot to accomplish in a semester or two.


Both Tim Taylor and Deirdre McCloskey (whose essay I excerpt from below) aren’t saying that you can’t teach economics to undergraduates. You most certainly can, and you don’t need to run a fancy-pants model to ascertain this. What they are saying, however, is that it is one thing to teach them the principles of economics. It is quite another to teach them to apply these principles in their lives, at all times.

Bower thinks that we can teach economics to undergraduates. I disagree. I have concluded reluctantly, after ruminating on it for a long me, that we can’t. We can teach about economics, which is a good thing. The undergraduate program in English literature teaches about literature, not how to do it. No one complains, or should. The undergraduate program in art history teaches about painting, not how to do it. I claim the case of economics is similar. Majoring in economics can teach about economics, but not how to do it…. (Emphasis added)


It is one thing to teach opportunity costs. And most students we’ve taught will tell you the definition. The “good” students will tell you three different definitions, from three different textbooks, and maybe cite a couple of academic papers that ruminate about what the definition means. Well, great. Do these students apply the concept of opportunity costs in their daily lives? Do they ask themselves if this (whatever this may be) is the best use of their time, and what are they giving up in order to do this?

Does winning matter more than learning? Does winning matter more than doing? If you end up defeating somebody else – a person, a team, a tribe, a party or a nation – what do you gain? And to go back to the previous paragraph, was it but a Pyrrhic victory?

Consider this hypothetical:

Let’s say there’s two teams in some corporate environment somewhere. And for whatever reason, these teams don’t get along well together. Both sides believe that they’re in the right, and the other side is in the wrong, and we’ve reached Mark Twain territory.

Are they going to go to their manager(s) and ask them to resolve this issue? Sure, it may seem like a good idea initially. But said managers, I can assure you, have things to do. Deliverables to, well, deliver. Teams to manage. Projects to initiate. Other people to manage. And so the manager(s) might listen to both teams long list of complaints once, perhaps twice.

But eventually the price mechanism will come to the party. The more the two teams spend time on this, rather than on work, the more expensive the situation becomes for the enterprise. Because a commodity that is limited (time) is being spent on non-productive work (productive, in this case, can be thought of as remunerative).

Since the whole point of the firm’s existence is to maximize revenue, this will not be tolerated for too long. The manager(s) will eventually say one of the following:

  1. Figure it out yourselves, but get the work done, for that’s what matters. Or else.
  2. Let’s reallocate, forcibly, both teams on to other projects. This will usually be accompanied with a mental note to themselves that truly important projects in the future should not be given to these team members. For obvious reasons.
  3. Or let’s shut down the project, because the point of a firm is to do the work that earns one the money. Start something new, with a new set of people.
  4. Now, since the team members are old enough to know that eventually pts 1 to 3 will occur, they usually swallow their differences and get the work done. Sure, bitching about the other team will happen in bars and pubs in the evening, and sure the other team won’t be called home for dinner anytime soon. But in the workplace, professionalism will win out, due to the price mechanism. In more explicit terms, they will get the work done because they know that otherwise they will be fired.

The reason all of this will happen is because these team members will have families, responsibilities, loans to pay off. The money they will lose out on by losing their jobs is far too important, and the threat of losing out on their income forces them to behave professionally.

The opportunity cost argument comes into play. Playing politics may be good for your ego, but it ain’t good for your wallet. But that lesson comes with age, it doesn’t come from attending principles of economics classes.

A nineteen-year old has intimations of immortality, comes directly from a socialized economy (called a family), and has no feel on his pulse for those tragedies of adult life that economists call scarcity and choice. You can teach a nineteen-year old all the math he can grasp, all the history he can read, all the Latin he can stand. But you cannot teach him a philosophical subject. For that he has to be, say twenty-five, or better, forty-five. …


Adults don’t necessarily grasp the argument that the opportunity cost of politics is work. But they understand the rules of the game called life. They do understand that the opportunity cost of politics is an increase in the probability of losing their wages. And so they still practice politics, but more covertly. Not, in other words, an ideal situation if the system is trying to optimize work, but hey, better than overt politics.

How to get students to understand that the opportunity cost of politics is learning? That the opportunity cost of politics is not getting fun projects done? That the opportunity cost of resolving arguments, or adjudicating who said what to whom and when is not being able to start other fun learning based projects? There’s no price mechanism at play, there’s illusions of immortality (they don’t get that time is limited), they don’t have the responsibility of putting food on the table (they come from a socialized economy called a family), and they haven’t experienced the tragedies of adult life.

To them, winning a political argument against the other side is the best use of their time.

Principles of economics, if taught well, and if learnt well, should in theory help you understand that the opportunity cost of politics is work. Philosophy should in theory teach you that good work is better than bad politics.

I’ll say this much: I was convinced that Deirdre McCloskey was wrong when she said that you couldn’t have undergraduates do economics, even if we taught them economics.


I hope.