Since When?

I recently shared a story about Halloween my freshman year of college. I like thinking about those good old days. I made lifelong friends. I am grateful for those friendships every day.

Did I get a good education? Maybe. If I didn’t, I own my young-person’s choices. Because, as I have quoted elsewhere on this blog, a college education is not a commodity purchase. The student has to exert effort, in the right amounts and of the right quality, to truly benefit.

Still, there was some really bad teaching. Bad by anyone’s standards. Here is my favorite example.

In my junior year, I was in an intermediate microeconomics class. I remember the professor’s name, but I am not going to use it here. Let’s just say that he’s a well-known economist. I just looked at his CV: he was an assistant professor at the time. I am sure I wasn’t aware of his title, and even if I were, I wouldn’t have known what it meant.

On the day in question, Professor X was proving Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem. This theorem explains why it is so hard to aggregate the preferences of a group of people. I now think about this result all the time, as I spend a lot of time in meetings where groups are trying to decide things. In other words, I now appreciate how brilliant and important the idea is. But at the time, I was just trying to follow the mathematical derivation that Professor X was writing on the chalkboard.

I was in autopilot mode, taking notes. Some other students were, too. Still others were reading a newspaper or staring at the ceiling. We were all used to this passive method of education. On this day, we got about 45 minutes of it.

But then something happened at the front of the room to grab our attention. Professor X had stopped writing. He was cradling his head in his hands, elbows leaning on the lecturn. It was quiet. Then he let out a moan. “Ohhhhhhhh,”

Forget everything I’ve said!

The room was silent. We all looked at him. Then one student broke the silence and called back,

Since when?

I don’t know who that classmate was. But if I ever find out, I am going to buy him a beer. I was stunned and amused by the power of those two words to summarize the student experience.

Plus, I have a different perspective now, as the person at the lecturn: I hope I never have to issue the order we heard that day!

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