THE TEACHING ECONOMIST - William A. McEachern                 

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Issue 22, Spring 2002

William A. McEachern, Editor

The Education of a Beautiful Mind

Several years ago in these pages, I lamented the boring image that economists project in the popular culture, an image that could use a boost from a movie role showing an economist doing interesting, challenging and worthwhile work ("Economist as Movie Hero?" The Teaching Economist, Issue 12, Fall 1996). After all, the brilliant scientist has been a movie staple since silent films. If you told me years ago that one day there would be a successful movie about a winner of the Nobel Prize in economics, I would have exclaimed, "Oh happy day!"

Well, as you probably know, the movie based on Sylvia Nasar's award-winning biography of John Forbes Nash, Jr. has become a critical and box-office success, surpassing $100 million in early February. With Russell Crowe as Nash, A Beautiful Mind has won four Golden Globe Awards and has been nominated for eight Academy Awards including best picture, actor, supporting actor, director, and screenplay.

Unfortunately, Nash is not an economist but a mathematician, so the public image of economists gets no lift from the movie. In fact, most viewers will think that Nash's Nobel is in mathematics, not economics, since the movie never mentions that the award is in economics (there is no Nobel Prize in mathematics, but you wouldn't know that from the movie). To the extent economists get mentioned, they are characterized as waiting around for this mathematician to straighten out Adam Smith.

Besides economists, other victims of the movie include teachers, class instruction, and textbooks. In fact, you might say that the very idea of a formal education is at odds with what the movie is about. The trappings of education are mere foils for a story about a lone, brooding genius. His solitary mind is beautiful without any value added from teachers, classes, books, or tests. As Russell Crowe's Nash declares in the movie, "I cannot waste time with these classes, these books, memorizing the weaker assumptions of lesser mortals. I need to look through, to the governing dynamics, to find a truly original idea. It is the only way I will distinguish myself."

When compared with Nasar's detailed biography (A Beautiful Mind, Simon & Schuster, 1998), the movie devalues the role that education played in shaping Nash's beautiful mind. My interest is not in Nash's mental illness, which according to the biography began years after the events to be discussed here took place. Let's compare the movie with the biography on some key points. Note that, in the process of elaborating on these key points, I will not give away the movie's dramatic twists.

Nash's Educational Background

The Movie: In the opening scene, Nash arrives at Princeton's graduate program as some hayseed fresh from the hills of West Virginia, lacking the educational pedigree of his classmates. "You the poor kid that never got to go to Exeter of Andover?" a classmate inquires. He is mistaken for a waiter at the graduate student reception. The movie is telling us that Nash made it to Princeton, not because of his educational background, but because of his innate ability. There is no evidence throughout the movie that any teacher ever helped shape that mind. Certainly no faculty member at Princeton plays a role.

The Biography: Nash's family was well educated, and by the time he reached Princeton, his own education probably eclipsed that of other graduate students. His maternal grandparents were college graduates as were their four children, including Nash's mother, who studied languages at West Virginia University. Before marrying, she taught high school for six years and attended summer programs at Columbia, Berkeley, and the University of Virginia. "A natural teacher" (p. 31), she taught her son to read by age four, tutored him up through high school, and arranged for him to take courses at a nearby college while he was still in high school.

Nash's paternal grandparents were also college graduates. His paternal grandmother had been first a student, then a teacher at Nash College in Texas, before marrying the son of its founders. After marriage, these two ran the college. Their son, John's father, earned an engineering degree from Texas A&M, where he taught briefly after graduation. He had "a sharp, inquiring mind" (p. 26) and patiently answered his son's many questions about the world.

How many of you had parents and grandparents who were all college graduates or had parents so actively involved in your education? Among the cohort of Nash's parents' generation, fewer than 1 in 20 graduated from college; fewer than 1 in 35 made it in his grandparents' generation.

Nash won a Westinghouse scholarship to Carnegie Tech, where scholarship students took most of their classes together-small classes taught by select instructors. The math faculty was distinguished and included European émigrés who had worked with Einstein. These scholars so impressed Princeton's Albert Tucker (of Kuhn-Tucker fame) when he visited that he said he felt like he was "bringing coals to Newcastle" (p. 42). Nash ended up taking enough advanced graduate courses at Carnegie Tech to earn an M.S. in math as a bonus along with his B.S.

Nash's Class Attendance

The Movie: "You ever going to go to class?" a classmate inquires. Nash says it will blunt his creativity. The department head reminds Nash that other graduate students go to class. Nash, again, is the iconoclast and solitary genius, alone with his thoughts and his muse.

The Biography: Upon entering the mathematics program at Princeton, graduate students were advised that they could attend class or not-their call. They were also told that course grades meant nothing (p. 59). The department had no course requirements and no course examinations. All that mattered were the general exams initially offered in the spring of the first year. Students could prepare for them however they chose. So Nash's no-class approach was well within the framework of his graduate program and was not the defiant act of a lone genius. He did try one course in algebraic topology but decided the subject was too formal for him, so he stopped attending class (p. 68). Based on his excellent training at Carnegie Tech, he likely already had learned much of what Princeton had to offer. But graduate students in math had one formal requirement. They had to go to tea each afternoon, where students and faculty talked shop.

The faculty had enough doubts about Nash's preparation that they persuaded him not to sit for the generals that first spring (p. 74). He spent the summer cramming and passed them in the fall of his second year (p. 93). The movie makes no mention of the generals (and compresses the Ph.D. program into a single academic year). Once Nash passed the general exams, he returned to his singular focus of finding a breakthrough idea for his dissertation. He may not have attended class, but he apparently did go to tea regularly, where he was a major griller of graduate students and faculty, pumping them about what was hot and where the holes were. Through these conversations and by attending lectures from visiting mathematicians, he identified important math problems of the day (p. 68). But the movie ignores all this, never showing Nash asking a faculty member a single question at Princeton. That would violate the genius-acting-alone movie arc.

Nash and Books

The Movie: Nash is never shown reading a book at Princeton. The only time we see him with a book, he ostensibly drops the course textbook in the trash at the beginning of a course he is teaching at MIT.

The Biography: Books apparently were a part of his education, at least prior to graduate school. While other children played, young Nash "could always be found in the parlor with his nose buried in a book or magazine" (p. 31). In his short autobiography (www.nobel.se/economics/laureates/1994/nash-autobio.html), Nash notes that as a child he learned from the many books available at his and his grandparents' homes. His father kept him supplied with science books.
But, according to one Princeton classmate, Nash was dyslexic (p. 68). If true, this could explain why he spent so little time reading at Princeton.

Nash's Dissertation

The Movie: Nash's inspiration for his famous equilibrium comes from an incident at a student bar, where some colleagues are discussing the odds of picking up women. He rushes back to his room, spends weeks feverishly writing up his findings, and presents the finished draft to his advisor, who remarks, "You do realize that this flies in the face of one hundred and fifty years of economic theory?" Based on "a breakthrough of this magnitude," his advisor says he can get any job he wants, including the top prize, the MIT position.

The Biography: In his autobiography, Nash says he got the idea for his famous equilibrium from taking an International Economics course at Carnegie Tech (a class he apparently attended). Albert Tucker, his dissertation advisor at Princeton, was not the rubber stamp we see in the movie. After Tucker asked for revisions on a draft, Nash fell silent for months. He considered changing topics and advisors. But Tucker "could be surprisingly forceful" and eventually convinced him to stick with the topic and make the necessary changes (p. 96).

Nash did get an MIT job, but a position there was decidedly inferior to the jobs at Princeton or Harvard to which he aspired. One reason he did not get an offer from Princeton was that the professor who supervised the honors calculus course Nash taught there complained that Nash could neither teach nor get along with students (p. 132).

Nash may be a brilliant mathematician but his teaching was abysmal, as the biography documents chapter and verse. Even the movie acknowledges the problem. In his only teaching scene in the movie, after dropping the textbook in the trash, he announces to his MIT class: "Personally, I think this class will be a deadly waste of both your, and what's infinitely worse, my time. But there you are. Attend or not. Complete the assignments at your whim." He then puts a mathematical puzzle on the board, saying, "This problem will take some of you a few months to solve, some of you the rest of your natural lives." Nasar, the biographer, writes that according to one colleague, Nash advised other instructors, "If you're at MIT, forget about teaching. Just do research" (p. 139). Sound familiar?

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