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Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Calling of Teaching

Key to the future of liberty.

I’m spending this week speaking at an Institute for Humane Studies seminar for college students interested in libertarian ideas. This follows my participation two weekends ago at another IHS seminar, one for graduate students and faculty members interested in becoming better teachers. One great thing about both experiences is the opportunity to be around, and inspired by, other great teachers. It’s also great to teach in a room where the students are all thrilled to be there and excited to hear you talk. As comedians would say, it’s an easy room.

The two seminars have also got me thinking about teaching and its role in the liberty movement. Having spent my career at an institution where I teach a lot and where teaching is highly valued, I’m long used to thinking about the power of the classroom for young people in general. However, only recently has the libertarian movement begun to think seriously about how important really good teachers are to opening people’s minds to our ideas, especially at the high school and college levels, when students are most amenable to them. Part of this new focus has been driven by the realities of higher education, where we have done well at producing more Ph.D.s but face a climate where tenure-track jobs are dwindling and competition makes it hard for everyone to get one at a research-oriented school. More libertarian academics are going to wind up at places like mine, and to be successful both as a professor and at generating student interest in liberty, they will need to be excellent teachers.

Greatest Impact

Not everyone will be the next Hayek. Most of us will have our greatest impact in the classroom, where the number of students we teach over a career can add up very quickly. That’s going to be many more people than the number who read our relatively obscure scholarly articles (though not this column!).

So how does one become an excellent teacher? At the evening reception the other night, one of the students here asked me precisely that question, and I answered with three terms: passion, empathy, and love.

Expertise and excellent teaching have the same source: passion about the subject. If you aren’t passionate about what you do, I’m not sure how you can be a truly excellent teacher. That same passion should also lead you to become knowledgeable about your subject. I love economics, and it’s what drives me to know more, to write, and to master the discipline. I think my passion comes across in my classroom and in other public speaking. Every year Israel Kirzner gives an introductory lecture for graduate students at FEE’s Advanced Austrian Economics Seminar. Even in his early 80s he gives that talk with the passion of someone doing it for the first time and as though it was the most important thing in the world. That is a mark of an excellent teacher.

Seeing the World as Students See It

Empathy is the ability to see the world as your students see it so you can offer explanations they can grasp. I don’t mean just using examples that touch on their culture but something deeper. An excellent teacher has to be able to explain concepts and use words that are accessible to the student. This often means eschewing the technical language of the discipline, or at least not starting there. Really great teachers are really great “explainers” because their audience perceives them as clear communicators. Doing that requires knowing your audience, and that requires this sort of empathy, which is often the result of careful listening to the questions students ask. Great teachers aren’t just great speakers but great listeners too.

Love here is not about the subject matter; it’s about the students. Great teachers really like and respect their students. They treat them fairly, they treat them as adults, and they hold high expectations for them. They also listen sympathetically and try to give them the benefit of the doubt until they demonstrate they don’t deserve it. Students respond to teachers whose default mode is to love them in this sense. If you don’t like and respect your students, that will come across quickly in the classroom and you will lose many of them in the process.

The power of great teachers is never to be underestimated. If we are to move forward to freedom, a key part of that process will take place in the classroom, where young people’s views of the world are up for grabs. No matter how right we think the ideas of freedom are, they have to be communicated and taught in ways that are powerful and effective. That means great teaching. The more great teachers we have and the more we think about how to do the job well, the better the prospects for liberty.

  • Steven Horwitz was the Distinguished Professor of Free Enterprise in the Department of Economics at Ball State University, where he was also Director of the Institute for the Study of Political Economy. He is the author of Austrian Economics: An Introduction.