All Commentary
Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Walter Williams’s Students Explain What Made Him Such a Great Economics Teacher

Renowned economist Walter Williams has died. He was 84.

Editorial note: We at the Foundation for Economic Education mourn the passing of Walter Williams, a great economics educator and a long-time friend of FEE who distributed our publications and cheered on our work. We are forever grateful to Dr. Williams for his heroic contributions to the cause of economic freedom and understanding.

Walter Williams, renowned economist—and my teacher—has passed away. He was 84. His accomplishments as a researcher, teacher, and public intellectual are too great to number in a single article, so I’ve decided to write about the side of Dr. Williams I was blessed to experience personally: Walter Williams the teacher.

Economics Educator Extraordinaire

“I think you’re right, but it’s kind of clumsy.”

Those were the first words Walter Williams said to me after my long-winded answer to a question about the paradox of value. Dr. Williams, like all great teachers, understood the most important thing in economics was getting the fundamentals right. Like the great UCLA Basketball coach John Wooden taught each of his players to tie their shoes, Dr. Williams had us tie our proverbial shoes every lecture in our PhD Microeconomic Theory class. Concepts and phrases like “production”, “utility”, and “consumption” we took for granted were often the target of refinement by our professor.

However, he never did so to tear us down. Rather, he pushed students to perform at the highest level he could by probing our knowledge with grace and humor. His examples were both relatable and funny.

Although there are too many examples to include, I’ve added testimonials by some of Dr. Williams’s students over the years about what they enjoyed about him as a teacher. But first, I’d like to offer one last anecdote of my own.

Builder of Bridges

Dr. Williams once posed a puzzle to us which was originally posed by his teacher (the late, great Armen Alchian) for which he claimed to have no satisfactory answer. He asked, “why is it that present generations produce goods from which future generations many years ahead of them benefit? That is the people who built the Brooklyn bridge, they’re all dead, but current generations benefit from their sacrifices. Why’d they do that?”

Dr. Williams batted our answers down with relative ease. Although, to my knowledge, he never received a satisfactory answer, Dr. Williams has become a subject of his very own puzzle. I’m reminded by a poem by William Allen Dromgoole about an old man who, after crossing a large stream, took time to build a bridge behind him. When a fellow traveler asked him why he bothered to build a bridge after already passing, the old man responded:

This chasm, that has been naught to me,

To that fair-haired youth may a pitfall be.

He, too, must cross in the twilight dim;

Good friend, I am building this bridge for him.

Like the subject of his puzzle, and the old man in Dromgoole’s poem, Dr. Williams was a bridge-builder.

In the 40 years he served as professor at George Mason University, Dr. Williams imparted the fundamentals of economics in the property rights tradition of UCLA to his students. He could have gotten by with being less focused on teaching, as he had multiple streams of income, but instead he produced in the minds of his students an understanding of economics that will long outlast him and bless many a “fair-haired youth.” Despite the fact that my cohort was one of the last groups of students lucky enough to see him lecture, we will not be the last of his students. Dr. Williams’s influence will continue to operate in a generation of economics teachers which, like a sturdy bridge, will continue his legacy.

I would like to take one more stab at Dr. Williams’s puzzle: why do mortal beings, like he himself, create value that will outlast them? Dr. Williams once described love as when you receive utility because another person receives utility. So, although Dr. Williams would scorn my unfalsifiable preference-based explanation, I believe this is the reason why he worked so hard for his students. Dr. Williams loved his students and the science of economics, and that is why he bequeathed so much to us.

Testimonials for a Teacher

Finally, I’m only one student of Dr. Williams.

To make his own impact clearer, I’ve gathered testimonials from just a few of his many former students.

“Walter was a friend of FEE’s and a friend of mine as well—a one-of-a-kind friend. He never failed to return a phone call or respond to an email. He went the extra mile when we asked him for anything. And in his love for liberty and sound economics, he was solid as a rock. We will never forget his plainspokenness, his generosity, his candor. He leaves behind a lasting legacy to which we should all aspire.”

– Lawrence W. Reed, President Emeritus, Humphreys Family Senior Fellow and Ron Manners Global Ambassador for Liberty.

“I had the honor and privilege to be a student in Professor Williams’s PhD Microeconomic Theory course. For 3 hours every Tuesday night during the Fall of 2013, I was completely ‘hooked’ by his clarity of thought, wittiness of presentation, and colorful anecdotes, all of which illustrated to me how a consistent and persistent application of the economic way of thinking can explain human action in all its manifestations. He has been a role model that I’ve strived to emulate as a teacher of economics.”

-Rosolino Candela, Associate Director of Academic and Student Programs, Mercatus Center

“Walter Williams was a first-rate economist. He was an inspiring and compassionate teacher, an accomplished scholar, and a master at communicating complex economic ideas to the public.”

-Christopher Coyne, Professor of Economics, George Mason University

“My favorite memory from Williams’s class comes from his lecture on producer theory. He asked the class why profit maximization required the marginal cost function to be increasing at an increasing rate. I eagerly raised my hand, Williams called on me, and I began explaining why this is was a necessary condition for profit maximization. After about 10 seconds, Williams interrupted me and said, ‘you were right, but then you kept talking,’ which got a laugh from everyone in the class, including me. This is how we was as a teacher: brilliant, clever, sharp, and demanding. I will miss him greatly.

– Bryan Cutsinger, Assistant Professor of Economics, Angelo State University

“Dr. Williams gave his life to the teaching of economics, each day in class and until the end. Aside from his mastery of the principles, what stood out to me in his microeconomics class was the individual way he dealt with each student. Williams revealed his brilliant wit and mischievous sense of humor when dealing with more confident students, but with shy students like myself, he became gentle and almost grandfatherly. He was also the first person I told about my interest in studying the family from the economic perspective, and he took time to introduce me to some classic research and encourage me in my work.

His memory will live on in each of his many, many students as they seek to emulate his profound love for teaching and deep commitment to thinking properly.”

-Clara Jace, PhD Fellow, George Mason University

“My fondest memory is when Professor Williams asked the question: ‘I know oleomargarine is a substitute for butter, but what else is a substitute for butter?’ Professor Williams was pushing us to consider that there is some substitution effect caused by the price change of any good no matter how unrelated the goods under consideration may seem.

Well, the joke’s on Professor Williams, because his example proves that there are never any substitutes for experience, common sense, and unflinching honesty. No matter how cheap or expedient it became to signal political correctness or how expensive it became to firmly stand by your convictions, Professor Williams would never switch to the cheaper alternative. He was the corner solution who couldn’t be put in the corner.”

-Stuart Paul, Economics PhD Candidate, George Mason University

“The best thing I can ever say about Professor Williams is that he was a master at making me feel just ‘dumb’ and ‘ignorant’ enough to motivate me to study hard. Walking home from campus on late Tuesday nights after his graduate micro class, I often second-guessed my decision to get a PhD in economics. This was the result of the mild humiliation to which I subjected myself every week by attempting (and failing) to answer the questions he asked during class. How could I ever get my PhD in economics if I couldn’t even answer right just one of his questions?

The last day of classes, Professor Williams began testing our understanding of the material one last time. This edition of the show had a biblical theme. He went through a long list of peculiar obligations one finds in the Old Testament. I only remember two of them. The prohibition of wearing clothing made for the other gender and the rule that one could work his land with the aid of two oxen or two donkeys, but not one of each. He then asked us what economic notion may explain such rules. Without raising my hand, I blurted “price discrimination!” Professor Williams turned towards me for a second, smiled, and went back to his lecture. I was not sure my answer was right (when it came to his questions, no answer ever seemed to be) but I interpreted his smile as acknowledging that I had an economic thought. It was my first such thought. It was as if something had ‘clicked’ in my head and now I could just think like that, like an economist. That’s what Professor William taught me and generations of students before me, and for which I will be forever grateful.”

-Ennio Piano, Assistant Professor of Economics, Middle Tennessee State University

One student, wishing to remain anonymous, made clear the point that Dr. Williams tried to get the best out of all students. The student, worrying about issues with concentrating during exams, asked for the chance to take the exam separately from the rest of the class with a longer exam period. Dr. Williams, however, was confident in the student’s ability and encouraged the student to take the test with the rest of the class in the normal time period and see how it went. The next week, Dr. Williams announced to the class that that student earned the highest grade in the class on the exam.

“Williams was a model teacher of economics. While no topic was off the table, he placed a premium on clarity and conciseness, a standard to which he held himself and his students. It is from Williams that I learned the value of asking students to solve as-of-yet unsolved puzzles themselves using the simplest economic tools. Following in Williams’s footsteps, I myself spend the first five minutes of each class I teach trying to puzzle through similar questions with my students, to great effect. My favorite quote from Williams’s class was ‘Need is a vacuous concept.’ No other quote better communicates his teaching style with as little context. I’m very grateful to have taken a class with him.”

-Henry Thompson, PhD Fellow, George Mason University

“Professor Williams was a unique gentleman and scholar. As students, we were all mesmerized by his talents for explaining and communicating his passion for the economic way of thinking. For him, economics was about analyzing the everyday life of individuals. It applied and belonged to all. Professor Williams thought there was no room for the word ‘need’ in economics. We always live in a world of trade-offs with costs and benefits needing to be balanced. He would apply that seemingly simple idea relentlessly with striking illustrations. One day, to explain the indifference principle, Professor Williams narrated that he once entered his home in the dark. His wife said: ‘Walter, you scared me to death!’ Professor Williams’s answer? “I guess I haven’t bought enough life insurance.” Although having Walter Williams as teacher was, as he would argue, not a need, it was a privilege which we all valued dearly. May he rest in peace.”

-Louis Rouanet, PhD Fellow, George Mason University

  • Peter Jacobsen is a Writing Fellow at the Foundation for Economic Education.