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Thursday, September 3, 2015

Want to Study Economics?

Advice to Parents and Students on Choosing a University


I first stepped into a college classroom as the sole instructor in the summer of 1987. I was 23 years old. My then department chair and now professional colleague Karen Vaughn had more confidence in me than I had in myself, but I survived those two classes. I’m now about to start my 29th year of doing the work that I love.

I was involved with two recent discussions that caused me to reflect about the work that I do and how I do it. I want to share a few of those reflections as we start a new academic year. I hope they are inspirational to the teachers, especially the post-secondary teachers who read the Freeman, but I also hope they are helpful to high school students (and their parents) who are thinking about what matters when they choose a college.

The two main things I want to talk about are the relationship between teaching and research and what it means to “lecture” in a college classroom.

Some college professors will say that engaging in research and other forms of professional scholarship aren’t necessary to be a great teacher. I disagree. I don’t think you can be a great teacher unless you can meet two conditions:

  1. You are willing to subject yourself to, and ideally pass, the same sorts of critical evaluation processes to which you subject your students. When we ask students to write drafts, take our feedback and incorporate it into a revision, and then present us with a revised and polished next draft, we shouldn’t be asking anything of them that we are not doing ourselves. If that is how we think knowledge is developed and conveyed for students, it should be true of us, as well, which means we should be submitting our work to the test of peer-reviewed journals.
  2. Your ability to convey and create genuine knowledge in your area of expertise has been confirmed by your peers. What is it that you are teaching students if you aren’t part of the community of knowledge creators? What legitimacy do the ideas that you express in the classroom have if you can’t have your knowledge validated by your peers? The best teachers are not mere conduits of information, but offer students interpretations, comparisons, and evaluations of ideas that enable them to make new material intelligible and integrate it with other knowledge that they have. If college professors cannot demonstrate their ability to create new knowledge, I think there is an upper bound on how great of a teacher they can be.

The relationship between teaching and professional scholarship is a two-way street. What we do in the classroom can be the source of research ideas and projects.

My best advice for parents and prospective students is to actually visit a class or two when you go to campuses. 

It would be accurate to say that my 2000 book on Austrian macroeconomics and my new book on a Hayekian approach to the family both grew out of my teaching and were improved by it. The macro book was the result of more than a decade of teaching money and banking as well as intermediate macroeconomics, and the family book came from a similar decade of teaching first-year seminars on the family, as well as a course called “Economics of Gender and the Family.”

What I was doing in the classroom, from the reading assignments to the lectures to the class activities to the paper assignments, were all part of the process of my own exploration of those topics and my own quest for new knowledge. My next book will be an outgrowth of a senior seminar course that I’ve taught for several years on the Great Depression.

One reason I love to teach, especially topics I haven’t explored before, is that it is a great excuse to delve into the literature and become more of an expert. With a senior seminar, I’ll have 15 research assistants finding me new things to read and new topics to consider. After being immersed in the same material for years, any genuinely good teacher should have some interesting and novel thoughts about the subject that could be put to paper.

It’s not just that doing scholarship and getting published makes you a better teacher; it’s also that if you’re teaching the right way, it should lead to more ideas for things to write and publish.

For the college-bound and their parents, this is one reason to look closely at the research expectations at schools you’re interested in, particularly ones that sell themselves as having great teachers. What you want to look for is how many faculty are really teacher-scholars and how highly scholarly work is valued on that campus even as they (rightly, in my view) foreground the importance of teaching.

Finally, a word about pedagogy. Many faculty and theorists of teaching will tell you that “lecturing” is bad teaching. But what they often mean by “lecturing” is a straw man of what actually happens in most college lectures. Lectures are not pure information transfer. Few college professors stand in front of a classroom and talk for an hour straight with the goal being to take the contents of their brains and put them in the students’ brains.

Instead, those of us who largely rely on lecture are more like coaches, especially in economics. We want to explain and model a set of skills for our students, in this case “the economic way of thinking.” My classroom, especially in lower-level classes, is clearly about me being the dominant speaker. But my “lectures” are peppered with questions for students, and I follow up on their answers with more questions that push them to learn to think through problems the way an economist would.

The skill of a great teacher, at least in economics, is knowing how to structure that hour in the classroom so that the tools presented, questions asked, and activities engaged in enable the students to master the tools and their application for themselves.

A campus with a large number of true teacher-scholars will change young people’s lives in profound and positive ways.

Finally, doing all of that in person is much more effective than through a recording because skilled teachers can recognize when students aren’t understanding, thanks to our ability to talk and observe the room at the same time, and we can adjust accordingly. We can match their pace instead of forcing them to match the pace of a recorded lecture.

So my best advice for parents and prospective students is to actually visit a class or two when you go to campuses. Find a teacher in an area of interest and see what class is like. See how they teach and see how their students learn. Then see what role scholarship plays on that campus, and see how the classroom aligns with that role of scholarship. A campus with a large number of true teacher-scholars will change young people’s lives in profound and positive ways.

Even after 29 years, I never fail to get excited about the prospect of a new school year. I love the opportunity to interact with young people and open their minds to the world around them by coaching them through the economic way of thinking. It’s the greatest job in the world.


  • 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.