By Anthony Gill, October 26, 2009 in Pedagogy and Teaching
Whenever anybody asks what I do for a living, I tell them that I’m a professor of political economy. Invariably, the person who asked responds, “Wow! You certainly have a lot to talk about today!” Even my academic colleagues will say this to me if some event such as a large bank failure dominates the headlines. The underlying implication of this statement is that professors in my discipline deal primarily with “current events.” In other words, we explain what is reported in the newspapers or on cable news. This image is likely reinforced by the memories most people have of “social studies” classes in high school; those courses, at least the way I remembered them, typically involved students reading the newspaper and trying to understand what was going on the world by discussing the top stories.
Admittedly, teaching “current events” has a tempting appeal; I certainly want my students to understand the logic and problems behind topics such as the collapse of the housing market, the Congressional stimulus package, and efforts to reform health care. All of these topics are of great importance to me and I do want my students making informed decisions when they enter the voting booth or follow a policy-making career.
However, in my two decades of teaching at the collegiate level, I have come to realize that simply talking about current events often gets you nowhere with students in terms of understanding what is really happening. Students come to the classroom with preconceived notions about these events and when questioned directly they will reflexively dig their heels into their positions. These preconceived notions generally have their origins in those high school social studies classes. Being at a major state university that only recruits the top students from around the state and world doesn’t help the situation much. Teaching the proverbial “straight A” students is quite the challenge because, well, they know it all! On more than one occasion I have been informed by one of my pupils that he received a 4.0 in his high school social studies class and is certain that I have no idea what I am talking about. Little learning occurs in such environments.
So what is one to do? The answer is to teach students about bailouts, tax policy and health care without ever mentioning bailouts, tax policy and health care. This requires a strategy of teaching the fundamentals of political economy. For instance, underlying the issue of financial bailouts is the principle of moral hazard, the concept wherein insuring against deleterious consequences of a certain behavior actually encourages more of that harmful behavior. We discuss how hockey players tend to play more aggressively when they are given helmets and pads, which ironically results in more injuries. We then talk about how flood victims continue living in flood-prone areas when they are given federal insurance to help them rebuild their homes. And then I ask them about bank bailouts telling them that they already examined the issue in two different situations. I do the same with tax policy, having students first discuss how they would change their studying behavior when presented with three different syllabi that had different grading schemes.
All of this involves teaching a variety of basic economic concepts in situations that are more familiar and less ideologically charged than the topics appearing in today’s headlines. It also requires students to develop the skill of reasoning by analogy. As recent neuroscience research has demonstrated, analogous reasoning does not come easy for most students. It requires practice. Starting with the familiar and leading to the unfamiliar has been one of the best ways I have found to deal with supposedly complex events. Eventually, when students are led to the trough of contemporary events, they are familiar enough with some basic conceptual frameworks that they can step away from their preconceived notions and think through the issue at hand. Students can understand contemporary events only when they have a solid grasp of the fundamental concepts of human behavior.
So, am I fortunate to be in a profession that always has something to talk about given the state of contemporary events? Yes, but I’m even more fortunate to realize that all the phenomenon that we see today can be explained with reference to some fundamental principles that have been known throughout time. Teaching the core concept of liberty and free markets is best done when students don’t even know that is what you are teaching!
Anthony Gill is professor of political science at the University of Washington. His most recent book is The Political Origins of Religious Liberty (Cambridge University Press).