David R. Henderson  

My Philosophy of Teaching

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I just finished watching, for about the fourth time, the movie Stand and Deliver. It made me think of this talk I gave in 1997 when I won the Naval Postgraduate School's Schieffelin Award for best teacher on campus. It is determined based totally on student votes (both former and current.)

Here's the talk I gave after being presented the award.

Teaching as an Act of Love

Speech given by David R. Henderson, an economics professor at the Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, California, after receiving the school's Rear Admiral John Jay Schieffelin Award for Excellence in Instruction on October 27, 1997.

Thank you for the award. I want to tell you about my philosophy of teaching. About nine years ago, my wife, Rena, was about to teach a course at Monterey Peninsula College, and was getting nervous about being in front of a class. One evening, shortly before the course was to begin, Rena came home from visiting a friend who had taught before. The friend had told her that, to teach the students well, you've just got to love them. When Rena told me that, I wanted to say, "I think we've been living in California too long." Fortunately, I didn't say that. Instead, I thought about what my wife's friend had said, and I realized that at some point in every teaching quarter, I really do start to love everyone, or almost everyone, in the class. Why not, I thought, speed things up by taking a small leap of faith by vowing to love them on the first day? So that's what I did. And economics started being fun, for them and me, much earlier in the quarter. Since that time, I've always gone into my classes the first day ready to love them.

Caring about my students makes it easier for me to read their faces, so that I can usually tell quickly when they don't understand the material. Then I can backtrack--by explaining it differently or by telling an illustrative story--until I think enough of them are "getting it." By the way, this backtracking has sometimes meant that I haven't got through everything on the reading list. What I had to learn a few years ago is that teaching 90+ percent of a planned course is just fine, if the average student in the class leaves it understanding a large percent of that 90+ percent. The alternative is to "cover" topics so fast that no one gets much out of it anyway. I tried that a few years ago as an experiment. It didn't work. "Covering" all the material is like being a swimming instructor who brags that he's a great teacher because he covers everything in the instruction book. Never mind the fact that when his students get in the pool for the final test, they all drown.

Loving the students also motivates me to be there. We all have days when we'd rather be someplace else, no matter how good our job. Fortunately, that doesn't happen to me very often. But when it does happen, I don't want to shortchange the students. They're spending their valuable time in my class: I owe them my attention and interest in return. So when I'm sitting at my desk going over my notes and I notice that I'm feeling like not being there, I ask myself, "What can I do so that I'm looking forward to teaching them in a few minutes?" Then something immediately comes to mind. I start thinking of the individual faces of the students who are most involved in the class. Last spring, one person whose face I tended to think of, and who is in the audience tonight, was Brad Valdyke. I pictured his smiling face, his irrepressible enthusiasm for our discussions in class. Picturing his face and other faces of the many nice people I teach made me, by the time I had walked the 30 steps to the classroom, not just happy to be there, but actually excited to be there.

Thinking of Brad and his peers reminds me, by the way, that one thing that has made it fulfilling for me to teach at this school is that the students are such fundamentally decent people. I had a somewhat negative view of the U.S. military before I came to this school in 1984, but just a few months here changed that. I remember calling a friend and telling him that I was teaching U.S. military officers. This friend has written articles arguing that the U.S. military should not be involved in other countries' affairs. I nervously listened for his response. "I grew up as an Army brat," my friend said. "Military people are the salt of the earth." That has become my view also.

One time in class, I was able to articulate my love for the students explicitly at the same time as I taught a principle of economics. We were discussing the economics of information, and the main point I wanted to get across is that information is scarce and often valuable. Therefore, I said, the hostility that many people have toward those who make money on the basis of information that only they have is no more justified than hostility toward those who make money on steel or cars or steak. So-called inside traders, I said, are making money from information, but so am I. I'm here because I'm paid to be here, and I'm paid to be here because I have information that the school thinks valuable enough to pay me to give it to you. So I'm making my money on inside information every bit as much as an inside trader does. "Do you mean, professor, that you're not teaching us because you love us?" joked a student. The class laughed, and I saw my chance to extend the joke and make an economics lesson in the process. "I do love you," I said, "but love isn't enough to get me here. I have to be paid, too."

Loving the students isn't enough in another way, either. I wouldn't be nearly as motivated to teach if I were not passionate about what I teach. Here's why I feel so passionate. It's because the main thing I've learned in 29 years of studying and writing about economics is the incredible power that free markets have in liberating people so that they can better their lives. That's what animates me in my writing for Fortune, the Wall Street Journal, and the Red Herring. It's what made me think that the world was ready for the first economics encyclopedia, The Fortune Encyclopedia of Economics. Whenever making the point about free markets is appropriate--and it's often appropriate--I make it. And, more and more through the quarter, the students are the ones who make the point during class discussions.

There's one student, in particular, who "got" the point about freedom and free markets, and I want to tell you about him. Knowing him as well as I do, I'm positive that he wouldn't mind if I named him. Let me tell you a story about Randy Haney. Randy was in my introductory economics class during the winter quarter of 1993. He came from a remarkable background. The son of dirt-poor migrant farm workers in the south, Randy had been able to attend school only until the end of fifth grade. But he talked his way into the Navy, got his GED, later got his undergraduate degree while on active duty, and, ultimately, came to get his Masters' degree at the Navy school. He retired from the Navy earlier this year and is now pursuing a Ph.D. [Note: he earned his Ph.D. in 2002.] My first one-on-one contact with him was early in his first quarter when I required the students to dig up price data on various things from the past year and from 40 years earlier, and then to adjust for inflation. I wanted them to get out of their heads the idea that all prices have risen by about the same amount and see instead that the inflation-adjusted prices of airline tickets, phone calls, and eggs have fallen dramatically, that the price of gasoline hasn't changed much, and that college tuitions have increased a lot. I also wanted to get them using the library and figuring out how to do research. Randy was, I believe, the only one in the class who found all the answers without any tips from me, the library staff, or his fellow students. And he told me after I had returned his perfect assignment about all the detective work and logical thinking to track things down. Randy is the one, incidentally, who is quoted in your program as saying, "I place him along side W. Edwards Deming. [I think that's exaggerated but, hey, I'm just quoting him.] He is able to look beyond existing paradigms to reach those who might not be reached. To have Dr. Henderson as your mentor in economics is a life-changing experience." But his detective work on research is not what I want to tell you about.

I had Randy again in his fourth quarter in my Policy Analysis class in the fall of 1993. In between, we spoke occasionally and his understanding of economics widened and deepened. Sometime in the fourth quarter, it exploded. Randy came to be a strong believer in free trade because he really understood that free trade among countries makes people in all countries better off on average. That quarter, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was being debated and Randy came to my office one morning, upset about a radio talk show he had called into the night before. I asked him what happened. The talk show host, he said, opposed NAFTA because he feared that production would move down to Mexico and would increase pollution there. So Randy called the talk show and got on.

"Do you know what a normal good is?" he asked the host.

"No, I don't," said the host.

"A normal good is one like steak, a good that you tend to buy more of when your income goes up."

"OK," said the host, "I get it. What's your point?"

"Do you think that environmental quality is a normal good? Do you think people would want more environmental quality as they get richer?" he asked the host.

"Yes," said the host.

"Don't you think that free trade will help Mexico so that they will get somewhat richer?" asked Randy.

"Yes," said the host, not seeing the careful trap Randy was setting.

"Then don't you think that if NAFTA passes, people in Mexico will actually want less pollution?" said Randy.

On the spot, Randy told me, the talk show host hung up on him. Randy was furious. "I understand why you're angry," I told him, "but let's hold on to the bigger picture. That talk show host didn't hang up because he didn't get your point. He hung up because he got your point. You made him implicitly admit your point, live and on the air."

It's moments like that that, as a teacher, I live for.


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CATEGORIES: Economic Education



COMMENTS (9 to date)
David Friedman writes:

I agree with your central point.

My story in support is from one year when I was teaching essentially the same price theory course in two forms, one for part time MBA students and one for EMBA students. The part time students liked me, the EMBA's hated me--in part because I caught them cheating and said so, in part, I suspect, because they had a high opinion of themselves and expected to be treated accordingly.

The same course. I taught it very well for the part time students, liked them, had fun. Poorly for the EMBA students, didn't like them, didn't have fun.

Steve Horwitz writes:

This is beautiful David, and totally right on.

The most frustrating thing I see in fellow teachers, and one that often explains why they can't connect with their students, is that they don't love them in the way you mean. In fact, they barely even respect them. Teaching is an act of love and you can't love what you don't respect.

And it sure does help if you love not only your students but your subject matter.

Thorfinn writes:

Though this is a good story, I think Randy is off on NAFTA. Ripping on Scott Sumner, you should never reason from an income change.

The question is: what forces drove Mexican income up? If the relocation of polluting industries drove Mexican income higher, then it's reasonable to expect pollution would in fact be higher.

This is often exactly what we see. While Randy's criticism would imply that pollution should decline monotonically with income (as environmental quality is a normal good), we frequently observe (say, in China) that the factors driving income growth are themselves pollution intensive. It's only later, when services start driving growth, that the income effect starts to dominate.

David R. Henderson writes:

@David Friedman,
Thanks for the story.
@Steve Horwitz,
Thanks so much. As a bonus, this is why I'm still passionate about teaching at age 60.
@Thorfinn,
You're right. But remember that this was a radio talk show with limited time to make a point. Randy was familiar with the Kuznets curve I had shown in class and so he knew that Mexico was in the income range where further income increases would drive pollution lower.

Thorfinn writes:

@Henderson,

The actual existence of an environmental Kuznets curve is very contested. Whether or not Mexico would experience a reduction in pollution strikes me as an interesting empirical question; not something that students who have taken a few econ classes can respond to easily on a radio show.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Thorfinn,
Cites please.
Also, since we're judging Randy's comment in 1993, was the Kuznets curve contested then?

Daniel Shapiro writes:

Beautiful, David. I think it will help me get back to where I was and where I want to be.

Ben Bursae writes:

I agree with Mr. Shapiro...that is a beautiful speech, David, and as a former student (with an engineering undergrad who you have inspired to work on a Ph.D in economics), I can say I wholeheartedly endorse Dr. Haney's comment about you. You clearly had the same attitude towards teaching ten years after this speech when I took your class, and I am grateful for it! If I end up using my Ph.D in the educational arena, this speech will surely provide me with some insight into "how it's done." Thank you for sharing it!

Jeffry Erickson writes:

This brought back a lot of memories from college and graduate school. I wish we could get this message to elementary and secondary school teachers. Not only should they love their students but they should prepare them to engage with learning and engage with their teachers. If students prior to college are taught to keep their heads down, not ask questions, and passively absorb information how much harder is it going to be for college professors to draw them out into the kind of engagement Henderson describes? You inspired me to do some public worrying on this topic on my own blog.

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