Elegant, Simple, Coherent, and… Oh Yeah, Totally Wrong

In a Labor Economics class, I had a great TA named Peter. He taught me a deep truth about labor markets: namely, that TAs sometimes teach better than professors.

If people looked like bad drawings, he’d look like this:

He also taught me one of the most enduring lessons I’ve learned about economics, modeling, and the limits of theory to explain the social world.

But the lesson wasn’t about those things. Not explicitly. It was about the minimum wage. Continue reading

Letters from a Calculus Class

Dear Newton,

C’mon, dude. You already get credit for the laws of motion, that cool apple story, and the tasty fig cookies. Let me have this.

-Leibniz

 

Dear Student,

I know it stings to fail a test that badly. But hey, silver lining: you’re so far into the area below the curve that you’re practically an integral.

-Teacher

 

Dear Student,

I’ll put it this way: You don’t seem to understand me yet, but you keep getting closer.

-Limits

Continue reading

“Dead Poets Society” for Skeptics (or, How to Inspire Your Way into a Godawful Mess)

“This is a battle, a war, and the casualties could be your hearts and souls.”
–Mr. Keating

Last Friday, after a long day walking around London, we ordered curries and sought a little cinematic comfort food. We settled eventually on the quintessential Inspirational Teacher film: Dead Poets Society.

I remembered the movie as fun but philosophically naïve. As guiding principles go, “carpe diem” seems to have all the intellectual heft of a Dos Equis commercial. I mean, I’d love to seize every moment, but when am I supposed to fit in laundry, groceries, and thank-you notes?

As a teacher, I’ve found my work nourishing, and occasionally magical, but never terribly heroic. It’s a quiet, daily grind. So where does Hollywood conjure up these human motivational posters? Isn’t the inspirational teacher just soothing movie gibberish, like talking animal sidekicks, or One True Love? Continue reading

Art Museum in Utopia

Visitor: Hi, excuse me. I’m sorry. But I was wondering if you have any better art.

Tour Guide: Better art?

Visitor: I mean, take that sculpture over there. The happy, fit, attractive person depicted in a totally positive and humanizing light.

Tour Guide: Which one?

Visitor: Exactly! All the sculptures are like that. Or look at that painting of people just napping, while the others give each other backrubs and prepare salads.

Tour Guide: You mean “The Serenity of Having No Problems”? Is there something wrong with it?

Continue reading