THE TEACHING ECONOMIST - William A. McEachern                 

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Issue 3, Fall 1991

William A. McEachern, Editor

The Poetry of Economics

My Webster's Collegiate Dictionary says that poetry "formulates a concentrated imaginative awareness of experience." Like poets, economist must be powerful observers of the world around them. We must draw on common experience to convey to students the ubiquity of economic choices, economic institutions, and economic events. To convey economic concepts, we use examples, analogies, stories, and the other vehicles that paint mental pictures in the student's mind. Students learn more and retain concepts longer when they can "feel" the material. Thus our pictures impart more insight in they are loaded with sensation and emotion. I know this approach works because I have had former students bring up specific examples a decade or more after they have taken my course. Humor is a powerful took, but we can also rely on the senses more directly. Here, for example, is how I introduce the rate of time preference in my principles textbook:

Did you ever burn the roof of your mouth biting into a slice of pizza before it had cooled sufficiently? Have you done this more than once? Why does such self-mutilation persist? It persists because that bite of pizza is worth more to you now than the same bite five minutes from now. In fact, you are even willing to risk burning your mouth rather than wait until the pizza has lost its destructive properties. In a small way this phenomenon reflects the fact that you and other consumers value present consumption more than future consumption: you and other consumers have a positive rate of time preference.

(Economics: A Contemporary Introduction, 2nd Ed., South-Western Publishing Co., 1991, p.699)

One good mental picture is worth many dry words. We should always be on the lookout for fresh material. We should conjure up all our powers of observation to "sensationalize" our lectures. When I come across something that will help students see the point, I write it down--I stab it with a pen. Remember the Chinese proverb: "The palest ink is more reliable than the strongest memory."

There is I believe a hidden benefit imparted to those who search for clear and direct expressions of economic phenomena: in doing so, we gain a deeper understanding of the economic theory under consideration. As T. H. Huxley noted, "Some experience of popular lecturing had convinced me that the necessity of making things plain to uninstructed people was one of the very best means of clearing up the obscure corners of one's own mind."

I think a lot of good teaching is the result of forming good habits. As William James said, "We must make automatic and habitual, as early as possible, as many useful actions as we can. . . . The more of the details of our daily life we can hand over to the effortless custody of automatism, the more our higher powers of mind will be set free for their own proper work." So form good habits, then make them your master.

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