What courses do you teach?
Presently just the macro and micro courses so the 101 and 102 in the past I have also taught the principles of entrepreneurship but I don’t do that anymore the time demands are just too great. I do have teaching responsibilities with other faculties. I am a guest prof in the school of architecture currently I have also been a graduate prof in the faculty of environment. I also serve as a project supervisor both here in the department and elsewhere in the university.
What do you think students struggle most with?
They struggle with a number of things. Most of them are just adjustment issues and those are to be expected. I think, just based on the conversations I have had with many many students, I have after all taught 10% of the alumni of this institution, That is a lot of people and a lot of conversations. I think the thing they have the most trouble with is finding their passion. The number of students who don’t know what they want to do when they grow up is really quite startling. Not a big problem when you are 11, a huge problem when you are 21 and so that’s a huge problem and then many simply give up, knuckle down and base their whole education on something that will get them a job. To be here and not look for, aggressively and ideally finding your destiny is unhelpful in the extreme. I would say that is problem number one because the student who solves that problem everything else is easier. A person that knows who he or she is and I would think knowing who you are is a big deal in being successful at any level of ones life. It just seems to make perfect sense to me, not to everyone else but I am not speaking for everyone else.
What topics are the hardest to understand for students? Why?
There are certainly some idea that students struggle with and in this they reflect their society. So to some extent one of their biggest academic challenges is simply to extricate yourself from the popular culture of ignorance. We do not live in a society that praises learning basically we live in a dark place where learning is more marked by its presence than by its absence and many students just struggle with failing to understand that and trying to somehow relate what they are doing in the classroom to the mass of disorganized culture out there. One of the key points would be the students’ willingness to believe things without evidence. This is after all a university and the common attribute of all programs of all faculties is; you are an educated person and an educated person is guided by two key principles logic and evidence. That is what makes you different from someone uneducated. The more educated you are the more you are supposed to be able to master complex logic and highly diverse evidence but the rule of logic and evidence must always stand. We test your memory and frequently that has nothing whatsoever to do with testing your ability to pursue a logical answer. Or of course the evidence, where is the evidence I want evidence I want examples, I want illustrations, I want data. Large numbers of students seem to be startled by the idea that one would need evidence to actually come to a conclusion that you could defend. I do believe many students just see this university as “Super high school” without recognizing that they were supposed to have taken a very major intellectual step into a culture of learning which of course implies logic and evidence. More evidence is better than less, tighter logic is better than loosy goosey logic and god forbid no logic whatsoever or self contradictory arguments which I have to listen to. So, those are big intellectual problems. You have to get out of an ignorant culture and understand what a non ignorant environment is. Logic and evidence and then there is the supplemental issue there and its not always easy to articulate but students have to stop differing to authority. For all their bravado, sarcastic language and occasionally obscene language when someone says “jump” they say “How high?” especially if a paycheck is involved and they have abdicated the independence of their mind. They are not trying to achieve an independence of mind. If I find you intellectually understand that logic and evidence are the basis of an educated person’s decision making. What do you do when your mind or the evidence leads you to one direction and the mob screams at you to go in the other direction? Will you have the independence of mind to follow logic or learning or will you doubt yourself. At the end of the day, do you have the courage to say no to the mob? I think many students choose not to encounter the question and in many of our classrooms it is not forced upon them.
I find it so amazing how students will talk a brave line but to get that job they are prepared to do quite a bit. In one way its very ironic, they are looking for another parent. They want someone to look after them so that their material concerns are all taken away and someone will look after them and provide them a very generous allowance. Ironically enough they will offer to their employer surrogate parent something that they never offered their real parents which is obedience. Its really quite amazing. I have watched people, by in large my former students, in large corporations now for several decades, the earliest ones, some of them have knuckled under. The weight of the world has crushed them, the independence of mind. Now they are just a great cog in the machine and they are disposable. So now they must rely on luck and prodigious work effort to wait until retirement and their freedom. I have found it profoundly depressing because even if their plan is to live to this day of freedom at retirement, even assuming that they can manage their finances and get to whatever age and this retirement they aspire to I do not believe that when that day comes they will have the slightest knowledge of what to do with their freedom. By the end their brain will have just turned into mush.
What do you enjoy most about teaching?
I certainly enjoy a lot of aspects of it. For me teaching is this totally integrated package of things; I will try to separate them but I don’t really believe I can. To be in a room of young minds is stimulating. The questions I get, I hear questions of every conceivable kind that I would never in a thousand years thought of myself. I get information from students that I would never have gotten. To simply be with young people, yes some of them are idiots and some of them are lazy and some of them I would not trust as far as I could throw them. That doesn’t matter, the majority of them are bright and their minds are engaged. Then they get older and they get less energetic, more constrained, more stagnant more conventional. But in those late teens early twenties they are thinking about the widest range of things and the strange things they can tell me. Students have told every major technological advance on this planet since I have started teaching my students told me about it first and I read a lot so I am not plugged into the world and the best source of my information for just new stuff is just talking to my students. Now that is stimulating.
I am trying to have an impact and I have some evidence to believe its successful. So there is the satisfaction of doing something useful. That you so enjoy because it is as useful to [the students] as it is to me. It nice that it is quid pro quo because I don’t want to get excited about hearing all of this information without providing some returning value so presumably that is what teaching is supposed to be I had thought; a relationship, not a dissemination of wisdom from on high.
If you were to recommend a book to aspiring economists what would you suggest they read?
I am torn because in general I am still a fan of the classics. The masters; Smith, Ricardo, Keynes, Marshal. You know, the titans. If you are really going to be an economist, if economics is more than just a path to law school, don’t you really think you don’t want the textbook to tell you what Keynes said or didn’t say. Don’t you think that you should read the original words to find out what they actually said and you might well discover that it was not as you thought. One example is Adam smith: “Free market rules” are you sure that’s what he said. This is the same man in the Wealth of Nations that said “a conversation among business men never ends except in a conspiracy against the public” how much clearer could that be? It might be why Karl Marx thought Adam Smith was a social revolutionary, which of course, he was. Of course you should read some of Marx, how can you talk about the anti–capitalist view without actually reading it? So you understand what the man said, or didn’t say, and why he was wrong. If you believe he’s mistaken, what did he get wrong? Of all the things you could read, the masters. That is the answer I want to give, I’m sorry it’s not an easy answer because it’s hard work. If I were to recommend a contemporary book, and I have an interesting definition of contemporary, I would recommend Joseph Schumpeter’s Economic Development and that is because it has some of the best language about entrepreneurship and the difference between the model of the firm and that of the entrepreneur. He made an argument that was always compelling to me and is not always taught and it is there are two different kinds of persons; the entrepreneur and the manager. Managers take an existing system and they respond to shocks to the system, so that classic equilibrium stuff and then there is the entrepreneur who changes everything and makes the business manager obsolete. Schumpeter has classic language about why most persons will never be more than managers; it is because they have become creatures of habit… The difference [between an entrepreneur and a manager] is best described by those who walk along a road and those who build a new road. Much of economics is about how you walk along the road but maybe the heart of our discipline should be about how and why people build new roads.
Note from the writer:
If you would be interested in more gems of wisdom from Larry Smith I have included a link to his TED talk and his blog below.