David R. Henderson  

Tom Sowell Still Going Strong

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Dave Rubin has an excellent 46-minute interview with my Hoover colleague Thomas Sowell. Sowell has such a compelling and attractive personality in this interview, along with his ability to pull out simple but telling facts There are so many things to quote, but why quote them? Watch it for yourself. HT@ Donald Boudreaux.

Near the end, Sowell says something about how a few troublemakers in class can make it difficult for the rest who want to learn. My guess is that my co-blogger Bryan Caplan would have a lower estimate than Sowell about what percent of the students want to learn. In any case, that segment reminded me of how I handled such a situation when I was asked to give a talk on economics at Seaside High School about 10 years ago.

I started off with the trading game, which is always fun for the students because they learn while enjoying delicious candy bars. Here's a link to the trading game. I do two things different and I recommend that you follow my lead. (1) Use candy bars, not gift certificates. (2) Don't tell about them gains from trade before you do the game, for goodness sake. Have them do the game and then draw the moral of gains from trade from what they have experienced.

(Aside: I've noticed when I've done this for high schoolers and undergrads alike that well before the end of the class virtually all the students have eaten their candy bars. I know myself well enough to know that if I were in the students' position, even at that age, I would have saved the candy bar for later. There's probably a connection between that fact and my approximately 15% saving rate for the last 30 years.)

The game takes about 15 minutes. Once they've done it, I point out that they've experienced gains from trade and that the greater the number of trading partners, the greater the overall gains.

Then I segue to what I did here. This takes another 10 minutes. With the 5 minutes that it took for everyone to get settled, the 15 or so minutes of the trading game, and the 10 minutes or so of lecture, we're at 30 or 35. Once I've done that, I've accomplished a lot.

Many of the students get pretty interested and I play it by ear about whether to say more or open it up for discussion.

It was right at the end of this 30 to 35 minutes that I had a troublemaker. She was talking incessantly to her friend, loud enough so that it made it difficult for those around to give me their undivided attention. I could detect annoyed looks towards her from a couple of people near her. Realizing that I had accomplished at least 80% of my goal, I decided that it was worth taking a risk. I was at a disadvantage because I didn't know her name.

I said, "Excuse me, the girl who's talking at the back of the class. You can either stop talking, in which case I'll continue, or you can keep talking, in which case I'll leave now. You have a lot of power. You can decide for the whole rest of the students here whether I continue. What do you decide?"

There was one problem: she had kept talking and she didn't even know that I was talking to her, and so she didn't hear me. But her friend had quit listening to her and was paying attention to me, as was everyone else in the room. She then realized that I was looking at her and that a whole bunch of other people were looking at her too.

So she said, "Oh, were you talking to me?"

"Yes," I answered.

"What did you say?" she asked.

I said, "You can either stop talking, in which case I'll continue, or you can keep talking, in which case I'll leave now. You have a lot of power. You can decide for the whole rest of the students here whether I continue. What do you decide?"

"Oh, ok," she said.

"Ok what?," I asked. "What do you decide? Will you stop talking or not?"

"I'll stop talking," she answered.

And the class and I had a productive discussion.

By the way, I can't recommend this as a strategy in all cases. It wouldn't have worked with the thugs at CUNY Law School, for example, because they disrupted the event at the start. Had the speaker, Josh Blackman, used my strategy, the disrupters would have been quite happy to decide not to have him speak. That seemed to be, in fact, their goal.


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CATEGORIES: Labor Market




COMMENTS (4 to date)
Maniel writes:

Prof. Henderson,
Thomas Sowell is one of my heroes; I’m sure I’m not alone in that respect.
Regarding that student (or those students) who prevent others from learning, here’s an anecdote which might be useful in some cases or at least amusing. Years ago, another dad and I co-coached our sons’ soccer team. Our rule was, to play in the game, a player had to attend practice. Their age group, 12 and 13 years old, presented inherent behavioral challenges and, only two hours after their release from 6 hours in middle school, those challenges seemed to peak. After a few frustrating incidents, including one water bottle sailing through the air and hitting a player in the face, we made two rules: 1) when you’re at practice, follow our instructions; and 2) if you do not follow rule 1, don’t come to the next practice or game without a parent (or guardian). After we enforced rule 2 on two occasions, for two separate embarrassed players accompanied by their highly-annoyed mothers, our team became a model of compliance and our practices and games were fun for all.

David R Henderson writes:

Thanks, Maniel. Great story!

mike davis writes:

I'm beginning a deep dive into the works of Steven Pinker, starting with Blank Slate, some interviews and essays. Among many pleasant surprises is Pinker's admiration for Sowell. I can't find the reference but I'm pretty sure Pinker puts Conflict of Visions on his list of most influential books.

David R Henderson writes:

@mike davis,
Interesting. Thanks.

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