20 June 2011

The Heart of Teaching Economics

Lessons from Leading Minds

Simon W Bowmaker
2010, Edward Elgar, 432 pages, £95.00
ISBN 9781849804431

Reviewer: Wayne Geerling, La Trobe University

Economics is often perceived as a dry, uninspiring, abstract subject. Scottish writer, essayist and historian Thomas Carlyle once described the discipline of economics as the “Dismal Science”. This pejorative term reflects the widely held view that this science is boring, inaccurate and gloomy. As a discipline, economics has been slow to adopt innovative approaches to teaching. Ben Steiner’s character from the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is a popular caricature of this ‘dismal science’ in the classroom: highly abstract concepts delivered in a monotone voice, which ultimately send the students to sleep. Simon Bowmaker’s collection of interviews with twenty-one leading economists at universities in the United States is a welcome and timely rebuttal of this misguided – though prevalent – depiction of how economics is taught in the classroom.

The book is divided into three parts: fundamentals, tools and applications. Each part contains several teaching areas within economics, ranging from the traditional ‘bread and butter’ economic-principle subjects (Microeconomics/Macroeconomics) to contemporary, cutting- edge areas which are pushing the boundaries of economics, like race and gender and behavioural economics.

The most important theme in this book, indeed any book which deals with teaching . irrespective of discipline . is: what actually makes a great teacher? The question is posed in the foreword by Robert M Solow in the form of a question to be tested. Do “people who like teaching turn out to be good teachers” or “do naturally good teachers end up enjoying teaching?” (p vii). The simple answer is: there is no simple answer.

One of the great strengths of this book is the myriad of complementary and conflicting factors which come to define a great teacher. Most people would agree that preparation, hard work and subject knowledge is important, especially for inexperienced teachers, but these interviews seems to suggest that passion, energy and enthusiasm for teaching separate the gifted from the vast majority, and that this medium is an essential part of effective teaching. When recalling his time at Harvard, Benjamin Polak speaks of this “infectious enthusiasm”, which his best teachers had. “The one thing I learned from them, beyond just the clarity and the method, was the excitement of the subject.” (p 81).

While the techniques range from chalk and talk (Polak and Medema) to storytelling (Frank); showmanship and performance (Taylor) to experimental (Laibson); empirical testing (Greene) to observation and hands-on experience (Eichengreen), an overriding theme of these interviewees is a genuine and sincere love of teaching. The ultimate reward, so memorably expressed by William Greene, is “when a student says, ‘Now I get it, now I understand’, there is no feeling that beats that. That’s opium, it really is.” (p 103).

This book offers a fascinating insight into how economics is taught at elite Ivy League and other private universities in the United States, which have huge financial endowments and attract intellectually curious and highly-motivated students drawn from the upper-percentile ranks of society. One wonders whether the chalk and talk approach adopted by the likes of Polak and Medema offers any valid lessons for an average lecturer at a typical university with a wide distribution of student interests and motivations?

That criticism aside, The Heart of Teaching Economics is a marvellously entertaining and lively book. All who read it cannot help but come away from the experience with a richly enhanced understanding of the power, virtue and importance of teaching. One can only hope that this book will help change the attitudes towards teaching from within academia, so that Frederic Mishkin’s experience is a thing of the past: “Where if you’re a good teacher you’re not only not rewarded for it, you’re punished for it.” (p 380).