Friday, December 18, 2009

The Undecided

The recent death of Paul Samuelson at age 94 has prompted me to reflect on my own educational journey.  Paul Samuelson as we know, was a Nobel Prize winning economist and was also the author of a long term best selling textbook that influenced me greatly at a critical time.  As a high school student and even in my first and second year in college, I was uncertain as to what field to pursue.  And there were even moments when I was unsure as to why I was pursuing higher education.  Then economics came into the picture.  I can’t even tell you why I registered for this course—I wasn’t even sure at the time exactly what economics was and I knew of no one in my circle of family, friends and acquaintances who were in the field.  As far as I was concerned, this was just another course, taken most likely to meet a requirement.

The Eco 1 course at City College was enjoyable and well taught (no dismal science puns from me), and the textbook – Economics 2nd edition by Paul Samuelson- elevated the course to an entirely different level.  Slowly, I found myself reading further and further ahead of where we were in class and thinking more and more about economic concepts that in a formal sense were completely unknown to me just a few weeks and months earlier.  Who knew that you could be so influenced by scarcity, supply and demand, and the multiplier.  Nevertheless, I still wasn’t thinking about a major in economics or a career as an economist.  After the second introductory course (we were still using the Samuelson textbook) I was sure.  In my junior year, I decided to major in economics.  And major I did –45 credits in economics and the only reason I didn’t take more as an undergraduate was that I still needed to meet the degree requirements and graduate in four years.

Along the way as I was completing my major, I was fortunate to also encounter some of the best teaching I had ever been exposed to.  Certainly not every faculty member in every course but where it mattered, the teaching excellence was there. 

So many of our students today come to college without a major in mind and even without a clear direction regarding the future.  We do a service to these students by making sure they are exposed to a wide variety of disciplines including, of course, a strong liberal arts foundation. It is precisely in getting to know more about these disciplines and more about what we don’t know that higher education can make the greatest difference.  But exposure alone is not sufficient:  without excellent teaching the impact may still be minimal.  Just as excellent teaching can stimulate a student, bad teaching can turn off a student. We have an obligation as educators to shape a curriculum that opens the eyes of our students and an obligation as teachers to keep these eyes open.

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