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Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Confessions of a Retired Economics Teacher

The thing I will miss most is seeing the light bulb go on for students.

Today is my last official day at the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS) in Monterey. After today, I will be an emeritus professor, with all the rights pertaining thereto. That means mainly I get to use the library, which, by the way, is very valuable.

I’ve enjoyed my 33 years there. That’s almost exactly half my life. When I went there I figured that, on a scale of 1 to 10, it would be between 4 and 7. For most of the time, it was between 8 and 9, which is why I stayed.

I later heard, there was a lot of opposition to my being hired.

The biggest draw was the students. They are almost all in the military, either in the United States or in other countries, including, sometimes, Pakistan. The median age is probably about 31. It was actually much easier to get them interested in economics than it was to get undergrads at Santa Clara U, the only place I taught economics to undergrads, interested. I had to work much harder to get the Santa Clara students interested: I succeeded, but I had to work hard.

My experience with teaching at NPS directly contradicted what I was told by the department chairman when I did my courtesy call on arriving there in August 1984. The previous chair had liked me a lot and had hired me even though, I later heard, there was a lot of opposition to my being hired. The new chair had replaced him a month or two before I got there.

His predecessor had hired me on a year to year basis with a handshake agreement that it would go 3 years. When I made my courtesy call, the new chairman gave me some tips about what to do in “your year here.” So I knew that he had no intention of renewing. My wife was 5 months pregnant at the time and so I wasn’t thrilled about almost immediately looking for a new job.

Early Advice

In my first conversation with the new chairman, he gave me two tips. It’s the second one that relates to teaching the students but I want to tell the first one too, because my response to it was key to my turning the chairman around on whether he wanted to renew me.

He said, “There are a lot of people on the faculty who didn’t want you here. I don’t need to tell you who they are. You’ll figure that out pretty quickly when you run into them in the hallway and they try to trip you up.”

Earlier on, he told me that if I had any questions at any time, I should feel free to ask.

Most people don’t want to think of themselves as liars and so by saying “No,” he had to allow that it might really be “No.” I saw my opening. “Bill,” I said, “You mentioned that there are people who didn’t want me here and who will try to trip me up. I do have one question: are you one of them?”

He paused and then said, “No.” “Good,” I said, “that’s good to know.” A year later, he renewed me, and a year after that he supported me in going tenure track. Years later, when I told this story to a colleague in Organizational Behavior, she told me that what I had done is opened up a space in his brain for his answer to be “No.” His answer at the time was probably “Yes,” but, she said, most people don’t want to think of themselves as liars and so by saying “No,” he had to allow that it might really be “No.” All I knew, at a gut level, was that that was the right question to ask.

His other tip related to teaching. He had read one of my articles in Fortune and, knowing that I was coming from Reagan’s Council of Economic Advisers where I had been senior economist for health policy and senior economist for energy policy, he knew that my main interest was in domestic economic policy. He also, I think, figured out that I was a libertarian. He said that if I tried talking about economic policy and tried to elicit the opinions of the students and engage them in discussion, I would get total silence. The students, he said, are professional military, and they are taught not to give their opinions. That seemed strange to me but I’m an empiricist at heart and I resolved to try my approach and see if it worked.

For some reason, I was not trusted to teach a course on my own at first and so was put in to co-teach a class with another economics professor. I’m guessing that he reported back that whatever their worries about my being an ideologue in class, there wasn’t much to it. So the next quarter I was given my own class. Finally, l I would get to test the chairman’s claim.

Engaging with Students

He was dead wrong. It was easier to engage the students in discussions about policy than it had been at Santa Clara. Each day I taught I would come and say to my wife, “Well, they sure haven’t gone silent yet.”

He was dead wrong. It was easier to engage the students in discussions about policy than it had been at Santa Clara.

I’ve actually made their interest part of the pitch my first day of class. I tell them that many of them have seen more parts of the world than I have, that all of them have been in charge of way more people than I have, and that they’ve probably noticed things that they are curious about. Some of these things, I say, economics can answer. For example, if you’ve lived in Germany, have you noticed that very few houses and apartments have closets. If you’ve been to Guam (many of them have – I haven’t), what do you notice about buildings in Guam? Sometimes I answer upfront. Other times, I leave them hanging.

Then I say, “To quote from one of my favorite movies, Pocahontas, you’ll learn things you never knew you never knew.”

A big part of what I teach them is the Ten Pillars of Economic Wisdom. When former students contact me years later, they talk about those things and how they have helped them understand the world. Mike Ward, the new Chief of Staff for NPS, who arrived here last month, said in his first posted statement to the school that he was pleased to make it back here for the retirement of one of his favorite professors: me. He and I went to coffee this week and, sure enough, got talking about the Ten Pillars. Another of my favorite students, a civilian at NASA in Houston, when he found out I was retiring, wrote the following:

I wanted you to know that your class was one that still impacts me to this day. Since that time, I often look at the world through the lenses of the 10 Pillars of Wisdom, and I can say without a doubt that it has been a life-changing experience for me.

The thing I will miss most is being with students over 30 to 40 hours a quarter and seeing, for over 80% of them, the light bulb go on multiple times and with various degrees of intensity.

Sometime soon I’ll reminisce a bit about my students’ quick humor during class, which is icing on the cake.

About the picture: Terry Rea, the assistant to the Dean, whom I’ve gotten fond of over the years, put together a PowerPoint presentation showing some highlights of my career. The one at the top was my favorite of her pictures. My second favorite was one of my in an In’ N’ Out Burger hat. I don’t know where she found it.

Reprinted from the Library of Economics and Liberty.

  • David Henderson is a research fellow with the Hoover Institution and an economics professor at the Graduate School of Business and Public Policy, Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, California. He is editor of The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics (Liberty Fund) and blogs at