Are Teachers Evil?

Not, I assure you, clickbait.

This past weekend, I was lucky to attend an Unconference. An unconference, I learnt, is a conference with none of the rules of a conference. There are no panel discussions, there is no fixed agenda – in fact, the only rule is that there is no rule.

Attendees are asked to jot down their preferred topics for discussion on post-it notes, and put them up on a wall for for everyone to look at. These can be grouped together loosely, and folks who want to learn more through discussion and dialogue then assemble in an area to talk about these questions. You are free to leave at any point of time, no questions asked, and you are free to join any other session at any point of time, no questions asked.

Slight correction: there is a rule. At the end of the allotted time, you get up and move on. You always start on time, and you always end on time. But that apart, everything else is fair game.

If you think it all sounds a bit chaotic, you’d be right – it is. But then again, on the other hand, if you happen to think that conferences suffer from having too little chaos and therefore serendipity, you might want to try this format out. I assure you that it certainly worked for me.

Anyways, the point is that one of these little post-it notes, for one of these sessions, had this provocative question: “Are teachers evil?”. I hope to spend the rest of my life teaching people, beginning with economics, and as you might imagine, I made sure to attend this particular session.

The person who asked the question had school teachers in mind, but one of the joys of an unconference session is that participants are free to interpret the question however they like, and to take the discussion in any direction they like.

And I interpreted this question to mean any person anywhere who is teaching anybody, including themselves. This could be a parent teaching a child, this could be a teacher in a nursery school, or this could be a professor teaching Bayesian statistics class to PhD students. If you’re teaching, are you evil – this was my framing.

This blogpost isn’t about my reporting what went on in that one hour, fascinating though the discussion certainly was. This blogpost is about asking you to think about the question yourselves, and about my particular answer to this question.

First, take some time and ask yourself if the people who have taught you have been evil, and if you, in your role as a teacher, have been evil. Feel free to define for yourself what evil means in this context, and feel free to analyze for yourself the answer to this question.

Second, my answer, after a lot thinking about this question, is as follows.

Any teacher who kills curiosity about the subject being taught is evil.

If the teacher manages to kill curiosity altogether, the teacher is truly evil. On the flip side, if the teacher manages to make the student more curious about the subject being taught, the teacher is good. And if the teacher manages to make the student more curious about the world in general, the teacher is a legend.

But to me, teachers aren’t necessarily evil in and of themselves. As I see it, our job is to light the spark of curiosity, to kindle it, to feed it, and to nurture it. And to leave the student with an insatiable thirst to always want to learn more.

Failure to do this makes for a bad teacher, and the act of killing curiosity instead of nurturing it makes the teacher, yes, evil.

“Don’t kill curiosity” is a very low bar for those of us in the teaching fraternity. Making sure we never do so would be an excellent goal every single time we step into a classroom.

Help students learn better!

Joy to the World

Today, I begin teaching my favoritest (yup, it’s a word) course in the whole wide world: Principles of Economics.

This is a course offered in the first semester of the undergraduate program of the Gokhale Institute, and when we designed this course, we had a weird idea in mind: not a single equation in the whole course, and as few diagrams as possible.

The course is intended as an introduction to the core ideas and principles of economics. The undergrad degree has introductory micro in the second semester, and introductory macro in the semester after that – but the first semester is about just the principles, and the application of these principles.

Or, as I prefer to think of it, it is about falling in love with economics.

I came into economics purely by chance. I am an engineering dropout (Farhan in 3 Idiots? That’s me), and economics was seen as being “the most respectable” thing to study in a Bachelor of Arts degree. But the more I study the subject, and especially its principles, the more I fall in love with it. Economics, when taught well, and learnt well, is a subject that everybody should get to study, reflect on, and apply in their own lives.

That last sentence is an assertion, the defense of which is the whole course I am about to teach, but it is also my life’s mission. As many students as possible should have the opportunity to learn economics, insofar as it is taught well.

What does taught well mean? That’s a complicated question, and we’ll get to it in greater detail eventually, but here are three things that I would think are table stakes when it comes to teaching economics well:

  1. No textbook: Economics is far too broad and important a subject to be confined to a textbook. And I honestly think it is a dangerous idea to leave students with the impression that studying a textbook, and solving the end-of-chapter problems means you “get” economics. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Use many different textbooks, recommend parts of other books, encourage the students to think about economics when they’re watching movies, listening to songs, talking with their family or friends – but do not leave students with the idea that the study and the application of economics can be compartmentalized into a textbook and a series of examinations in a single semester.
    When the time comes to specialize in economics – when you want to draw a third budget line that is tangential to the first indifference curve but parallel to the second budget line – then sure, bring in the textbooks. But don’t leave students with the impression that this is all there is to economics.
    You might think that I’ve got the title of this section wrong – surely I mean to say not just one textbook? But no, I do mean no textbook! Given a choice, I’d much rather not have a single textbook. Videos, sure? Podcasts, bring ’em on. Novels, snippets from a variety of texts, movies, op-eds, blogs – yes. But for a subject as rich and precious as this, I am in favor of not confining teaching to just one recommended textbook.
  2. The point of economics is to be able to apply it: Learning about life being a non-zero sum game isn’t mugging up the definition so that one can regurgitate it in an examination. It is to apply it to all walks of life (it is one of the reasons I write this blog, for example). Learning about sunk costs should help you walk out of a bad movie. Learning about positive externalities should help you realize that starting your YouTube channel is an idea worth considering. Learning about opportunity costs should help you realize that spending more time on creating videos is a better use of your time than polishing a resume that is heavy on style and lacking in content. And so on. Dierdre McCloskey has an essay that I strongly disagree with, and my passion for teaching is renewed each time I read it.
  3. Passion: One should drive the point home in every single class in a subject such as this – don’t think of economics as a subject to be studied and then forgotten. It is a way to view the world, it is a way to enrich your ability to live your life to its fullest, and it is a way to help make the world a better place. The formal study of theoretical economics is about diagrams, and equations and derivations, sure – but the study of principles of economics is about unlocking secrets to a more productive life for yourself, and for society at large. Whoever is teaching this subject should agree wholeheartedly with this paragraph, to the point where “poora pagal hai” in this regard is both true and a compliment of sorts.

Economics is the study of how to get the most out of life is my favorite definition of economics, and today, I get the chance to teach a new bunch of students how and why this is true.

Bring it on!

Explain Stuff To People

I played a game in one of the classes I taught the other day, which happens pretty much every semester. By the way, if you haven’t used the website yet, please do give it a whirl. And the more the merrier – the last class, there were more than a hundred participants, and I can’t begin to tell you how much fun it was.

My assignment was based on the game too: the students had to go back home and play the game with friends and/or family, and then write up what they learned by helping other people play the game.

And the reason I bring this up is that I think learning happens best when you help other people learn. It’s one of the most famous quotes ever, and I’m certainly not claiming originality, but I am definitely re-emphasizing its importance and relevance: you learn best when you teach.

So if you really want to get a handle on a topic or a concept, get somebody to listen/read/see your explanation of a particular topic.

And speaking of which, learn a bit about Jack Corbett:

Mr. Corbett is an assistant producer of the NPR show “Planet Money,” who creates chaotic, studiously unpolished videos about economics for TikTok. Using pixelated graphics and low-fi editing, he produces skit-like primers on such arcane economic topics as Korean jeonse loans, how the NFT bubble can be explained by the greater fool theory, and time theft for low-wage workers.
“I try not to learn how to do things right,” said Mr. Corbett, who records his videos on a refurbished iPhone X. “For a while I used green screens as my drapes.”

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: so long as you have an internet enabled smartphone (no matter how basic), you can help others learn, and I would argue that you should. For your own sake as much as that of others.

It’s almost like life is a non-zero sum game or something.

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.

Play Like an Athlete?

Tyler Cowen has an excellent blogpost which should be read by everybody, titled “Learn like an athlete, knowledge workers should train“:

“Recently, one of my favorite questions to bug people with has been “What is it you do to train that is comparable to a pianist practicing scales?” If you don’t know the answer to that one, maybe you are doing something wrong or not doing enough. Or maybe you are (optimally?) not very ambitious?

He followed up on that post a few days later with some examples of how he trains on a daily basis. That post is difficult to excerpt from, and so I won’t, but I urge you to read the entire thing. As an aside, I think the most underrated word in his post is “partial“. So very tantalizing, no?

I teach economics for a living, so I am very much a knowledge worker. What do I do to train like an athlete?

  1. As with Tyler, I teach, and the returns from engaging with students have been, are and very likely will continue to be stratospheric. Educational institutes seem to go out of their way to make this the least important activity for knowledge workers, more’s the pity. In my opinion, teaching is the single most important thing that a knowledge worker can do. And that applies to students as well! Teach. Write blogs, create videos, record podcasts, argue with your batchmates, argue with your professors – all of these are forms of teaching, and you can never do too much teaching.
  2. I try and write everyday, here on EFE. Over the past two years or so, there have been extended periods of time where I haven’t felt like writing, and I haven’t beaten myself up over it. If you don’t feel like it, you shouldn’t do it. (On a somewhat tangential note, read this. I have found it to be useful advice.)

But, I am sorry to report, I do not read anywhere near as much as I should, and this sorry trend has only exacerbated during the pandemic. Podcast listening is very much a thing I like to do when I drive, so that has also taken a hit during the pandemic. And I would like to figure out how to create videos as a way to teach at scale, but I just find writing to be easier, faster and something I’m better at right now. So if at all I train like an athlete, it is at a very mediocre level, at best.

But what am I training for?

To be a better athlete knowledge worker, sure, but to what end? Athletes train like athletes in order to win matches or competitions. Knowledge workers should train like athletes to win too, but the knowledge worker sport is a very different one, because knowledge workers play non-zero sum games.

Athletes win by defeating other athletes. That’s the nature of sport. Although athletes, when they’re not actually engaged in competition with each other, seem to be very willing to share tips and tricks, and the best ones go out of their way to mentor their fellow athletes. RIP, Shane Warne!

Knowledge workers win by helping others (not just knowledge workers!) win. Well, they should, at any rate.

Hold on to that thought for a second…

This sentence stood out for me in a recent Sidharth Monga piece:

So here we had a strange instance of the side ahead in the game playing lower percentages and the side needing to make all the play sticking with percentages.

And here’s what I’ve been playing around with – if us knowledge workers are training like athletes, it is for a game called life. As I explained above, I train like a mediocre athlete at best. How then should I play the percentages in a non-zero sum game?

Here are my current answers:

  1. If the winning strategy is to help myself by helping others as much as possible, I should, at the margin, read more, write more and teach more. Anything that distracts me from this should be avoided or discarded. That’s the (counter-intuitive) low-risk percentage play, assuming I’m correct about the winning strategy.
  2. But there is (always) a non-zero possibility that this may not be the winning strategy, so I should try and help myself a little bit for my own sake. And this in fact gives me the freedom to double down on pt. 1 regardless!
  3. I really should be training harder, dammit. This is self-evident, but also a little nuanced. I should be training harder in any case, because it is A Good Thing, but also to prepare myself for any opportunity that may come up to help others. Teaching economics to non-economists, teaching statistics to lawyers, teaching econometrics to grad students in econ, teaching people how to use technology to make themselves more productive, teaching project management to students so that they can become more productive – all are examples of teaching and all are non-zero sum games. And I should be doing more besides. And more urgently than I am right now.

Train like an athlete, and be as clear as possible about the answer to that irritating question that just won’t go away: what are you optimizing for?

But I suppose trying to answer that eternal question is itself a form of training, so there’s that. No?

Catch ’em Young!

I spent the last week of 2021 teaching young kids economics, and what a time I had.

This academic year (2021-22) has been the best ever at the Gokhale Institute where placements at the Master’s level are concerned. More students have been placed than ever before, and at higher average CTC’s (Cost to the Company) than ever before. If you’re looking for quasi-anecdotal data about how tight this particular segment of the labour market is in India, I’ve got a story to tell you.

But this ought to worry us, as educators. If you believe that the physical, classroom-based education is indispensable when it comes to making people productive in workplaces, then we have a nice little natural experiment coming up. Folks who have graduated this past year, or will graduate this year, will join workplaces without having seen a physical classroom for the better part of the last two years.

If there is no noticeable dent in their productivity, ability to come up to speed, or in the pay they receive over time (relative to folks older by a couple of years or so) then, well, we have problems, no? The Emperor’s New Clothes saga in higher education is upon us, and interesting times lie ahead.

One of the implications of this evolution, I think, will be making explicit something that everybody in higher education has known for years, but have been loathe to admit in public. An MBA degree, or a Master’s degree in econ/stats is a stepping stone to either a job or to further studies. For the most part – not exclusively so – sure, and sure there are students and educators who don’t subscribe to the college-as-a-conveyor-belt philosophy. But they are a fast dwindling breed. The vast majority of higher education isn’t about learning.

And classes, examinations and results have therefore become a sham that we must all pretend to take part in. In private, students will happily tell you how aware they are that this is a sham, as will professors. But one is not supposed to say these things in public – or at least, one wasn’t supposed to say this in public until the pandemic hit.

One of the first things I taught these young kids was the concept of incentive compatibility. And if you think about it, the whole course was an example of this concept, because there were (praise be the lord) no examinations. No marks to be scored, no grades to be obtained, and therefore no comparisons to be made. They were there to learn, which worked out just fine, because I was there to teach.

And I taught ’em! Across the space of five exhausting but exhilarating days, I took them through the principles of economics, introduced to them the headache that is macroeconomics, told them about externalities and other causes of potential market failure, introduced to them the wonder that is the prisoner’s dilemma, and so much more. It was a whistle-stop tour through the kingdom of economic theory, and I had an absolute blast.

The students, if anything, seemed to enjoy the experience even more than I did. Our classes would begin at nine in the morning and get over by four in the afternoon, but the questions would continue beyond, and spill over onto dinner time. And as an econ-nerd who loves introducing new topics to people, I can’t tell you how it gladdened my heart so to be talking about the iron law of diminishing returns at eight in the evening, after a full day’s worth of classes.

Did the students “get” everything, one might quite reasonably ask. And I’ll be honest and say probably not. It was a lot to pack in to just five days, and not all will have been retained. And of what has been retained, not all will be fully understood.

But they left class every day wanting to learn more about the topics that they had learnt. They remained curious and inquisitive, they were willing to push back on topics and concepts they didn’t understand or instinctively disagreed with.

And the feedback session at the end of the fifth day was my favorite bit, for the consensus seemed to be that economics was such a fascinating subject precisely because there were no fixed, definite answers to many big picture problems. For better or for worse, this is exactly what makes the study of economics appealing to me, and that is why this assessment of the subject gladdened my heart so.

I have often wondered what a classroom bereft of both the carrot of marks and the stick of attendance might look like. I have suspected that the only incentive left, then, is the curiosity to learn more about the subject at hand. And my hunch, for a long time, has been that this will make teaching, and learning, a much more pleasant experience.

And while one five-day session is perhaps too little data on the basis of which to make sweeping generalizations, I will say this much: my thesis about learning isn’t quite as hypo as it was before those five days.

There are problems to be solved, of course. Scale was and remains a challenge, the logistics aren’t easy, this isn’t a cost effective way to teach, and the there is no guarantee that the learning will persist over time. And I’m sure you, the reader, can come up with a hundred other things that could be better.

But hey, I have learnt that is possible to teach economics to students between the ages of 13-16. Not just possible, but thoroughly enjoyable.

And I look forward to doing more of it, with many more kids, in the years to come!

About Teaching Python to Students of Economics

This is a bit of a rushed post, my apologies. I hope to come back to this post and do a better job, but for the moment a placeholder post and a request:

Read the whole thread (including the responses). We (and by we I mean not just all of us at the Gokhale Institute, but higher education in economics in India) should be building out more courses of this nature.

If anybody is already doing this, please do get in touch. I would love to learn more about how to try and start something like this for my university.

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?

Say It Ain’t So, Fed, Say It Ain’t So

The Federal Reserve broke my heart recently.

Now you might think that today’s post is about something to do with monetary policy, or the taper, or something high falutin’ like that.

Nope. It’s about a game. The Fed Chairman game, to be specific. And I’m heartbroken because the Federal Reserve took it down:

Thank you for your interest in the monetary policy game, Chair the Fed. The game has been a useful and fun tool to learn more about monetary policy. However, the Fed has updated its approach to monetary policy, and the changes are not readily accommodated within the existing structure of the game. As of June 1, 2021, the game is no longer available.
You can learn more about the Fed’s policy updates here. Be sure to also check out FOMC Rewind, a texting video series that summarizes the FOMC’s meeting statements.
In the meantime, we encourage you to connect with us on Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Facebook.

So what was the game all about? Well, you got the chance to “be” the Fed Chairperson for sixteen quarters, or four years. You had to “react” to events that took place in the economy by raising or lowering interest rates, in order to meet two objectives. First, you had to make sure that inflation was as close to possible to 2% over the duration of your term, and second, you had to make sure that unemployment was as close as possible to 5% over the duration of your term.

The game was designed with some sort of a payoff between inflation and unemployment, and the reason I use the phrase “some sort of” is because I do not know quite what the functional form was. If you played the game long enough, you figured out pretty quickly that there would be a “crisis” at the end of your fourth quarter in charge. And the remaining 12 quarters were essentially an exercise in firefighting.

Inflation in the game had a way of getting out of hand pretty quickly, and unless you were quick enough to react and adjust real interest rates quickly enough, each successive quarter would have the economy spiraling quickly out of control. Of course, if you knew your monetary theory well enough you could figure out how to “win”.

Here’s a screenshot of the game layout:

Source: The Hill

And here’s an example of how quickly things could get out of hand:


The last sentence from the previous version bears repetition: Of course, if you knew your monetary theory well enough you could figure out how to “win”.

That’s the point!

And that’s why I wish the Fed would reinstate the game. Because playing the game was a great way to get students to learn what monetary policy looks like in action. Sure, you can have students read Mishkin, or any other monetary text. And sure you can have them go through as many PDF’s released by both the Federal Reserve and the RBI. But nothing beats having the class split up into two teams, and playing three rounds each of this game.

After that, explaining the monetary transmission mechanism, or the Philips curve, or inflation expectations, or what “dovish/hawkish” means was child’s play. Because you see, they’d seen the effects for themselves.

So, dear whoever-is-in-charge-of-this-at-the-Federal-Reserve, I completely agree with you when you say that “the Fed has updated its approach to monetary policy, and the changes are not readily accommodated within the existing structure of the game”. No game could (or should) have envisioned the last eighteen months, and its ramifications on monetary policy.

But the game still served as such a magnificent jumping-off point for discussions about what transpired in the last eighteen months. “So now you’ve understood how monetary policy works under usual circumstances and most crises”, you could say at the end of the session. “But what about what the world went through in the last eighteen months? Would these tools be enough? Why or why not? What other tools does the Fed have in its arsenal? Which are most appropriate to use under these circumstances? Why?”

My point is that it was, and it still remains, a great way to introduce the subject to anybody, and especially those of us who’re learning about monetary policy for the first time. And there’s, in my case, about twelve years of students who I subjected to this game – and I’m pretty sure they would all agree with the request I’m about to make.

Please, dear ol’ Federal Reserve. Pretty please, with a cherry on top. Please bring the game back. It’s a great teaching tool, and classrooms are more boring without it.

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

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.