Turning Wizards into Teachers

Competition turns wizards into teachers.

-Roger Koppl and E. James Cowan, quoted in “Expert Failure” pg 91

Neither do men light a lamp, and put it under a bushel, but on a lamp stand; and it gives light unto all that are in the house.

The Gospel of Matthew, 5:15

In my spare time, I have been reading The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher. They’re dime-store paperback fantasy novels about a crime-fighting wizard in modern-day Chicago (highly recommend). In the second book of the series, Fool Moon, the titular character, Harry Dresden, is having a conversation with his subconscious while passed out from blood loss. He is reflecting on the death of his apprentice and attack of his partner/friend Lt. Murphy (no relation) at the hands of a werewolf. His subconscious reflects: “perhaps you should spend less time playing ‘shepherd’ and more time playing ‘coach.’ Ready [Lt. Murphy] for what she faces.”

This is a profound insight into the role of the teacher and mentor. Teachers can take on two main roles: that of the wizard, guiding people toward certain ideas or conclusions while hiding the details behind the veil of magic; or that of the “coach”, where people are prepared to think on what they are learning and all the magic is stripped away.

This seems doubly true in the economics profession, where we can hide behind complex mathematical models as a method to display brilliance. Sort of a “look how smart I am! I must be right because my math is correct!” attitude. That attitude can be conveyed by professors onto the students who memorize endless models on maximizing welfare, finding tangent points on curves, or endless proofs that cost-minimization is the same as profit-maximization. These students may learn these phrases and formulae, and indeed chant them like the nonsense phrases of a wizard casing a spell, but do not understand a lick of what is behind them, what the magic really is.

I think this outcome is a failure of teaching economics. I see my role of the teacher is to strip away the mathematics and look at what is really going on. What really is “marginal analysis”? What really are “indifference curves”? Why do we think with the tools we do? Why do we use homo economicus? etc. In other words, I want to teach “The Economic Way of Thinking” rather than calculus or algebra (let the math teachers do that, I say!). I want the students to understand the world they live in.

Our jobs as economists, as experts, is not to hide our light under a bushel but rather to share that light with the world. I want to start with my students. And I hope, by stripping away the magic, I can help them see who really are the wizards and who are just people who glued stars onto the dunce caps.

Jon Murphy