Monday, April 30, 2012

What a GREAT teacher does



Devil Color by William Baumol
        Interesting that right after I posted about William Baumol and the creation of art, he comes up in an article in the Atlantic from William Bowen,  former president of Princeton University about the value of liberal arts education and how an instructor can make all the difference.
      And it also gives me an excuse to post another example of  Will's fantastic artistry.  ;-)  J.C.

I took a beginning course in economic theory from William Baumol, a distinguished economist and one of my closest friends to this day. We used a text (Value and Capita) that is one of the most densely packed and worst-written books I have ever encountered. (I always suspected that Professor Baumol chose it in part for that reason.) We covered, if my memory serves me, about 35 pages in an entire semester. When we were studying a particularly inscrutable passage, Professor Baumol would say to the class, "Your assignment for next week is to take this passage and write me a three-page paper explaining, in clear English, what it means." I would go back to my room and struggle, and struggle, and struggle -- until I realized (if I were fortunate, and often in the middle of the night) "I've got it!" I remember vividly leaping out of bed and writing down the key insight, before I lost it. The course also included excruciating sessions at the blackboard in which students attempted to explain concepts to their classmates, under the relentless prodding of Professor Baumol, who insisted that we speak, as well as write, in clear sentences. (He would ask: "What is a demand curve? Please answer in a simple sentence that begins 'A demand curve is.....'"). Not everyone survived this regimen; sorting occurred.

Fortunately, I did survive, and that at-times-searing educational experience taught me lessons that I have never forgotten. One is that clear thinking has to precede clear writing, but that the former does not guarantee the latter. A second lesson was that it might take me quite a while to understand something -- longer than it took some of my classmates -- but that if I persevered, I could figure most things out. Thanks to Professor Baumol's friendly but demanding tutelage, I gained a quiet confidence that was (is) a gift of incredible value. An impersonal educational setting, or studying with a much less gifted teacher, would not have permitted that kind of learning.

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