Sunday, February 18, 2007

planet flat

"Americans whining--that is something we haven't seen before..."

-Rajesh Rao (as quoted in The World Is Flat, Friedman.)

at some point, everyone must take on a task the no one else will touch. i have a fuzzy memory of my favorite babysitter cleaning up a...well, lets just call it a "mess" resulting from the ill-advised fusion of a beans and franks tv dinner and a four-year-old's stomach flu. and unfortunately, this guy was just not the domestic type. (incidentally, his senior year of high school he lead the nation in rushing with 2,600 yards , 100 yards better than some kid from florida named emmitt smith...but i digress). innocently attempting to make small talk as he scrubbed the carpet, i mumbled, "looks like peanuts." he politely warned in response, "they sure wouldn't taste like peanuts."

i remember once in high school watching jake, a guy i considered my nemesis, walk over and sit down with the ultimate outcast to share a lunchtime conversation. the guy was new to our tiny school and looked downright odd, covered with acne and scars, a do-it-yourself haircut and obvious hand-me-down clothes from late-1970s iowa farm country. i can't even remember the guy's name. tom, maybe? and i think he had some sort of disability, i don't know what. all i remember is that jake went over and sat right down with him, and not just that one day, but several times per week for the rest of the year. that image never left me, and my shame became especially acute when i heard the news of the outcast's untimely death a few years later.

the list could go on: jesus touching the leper, a friend reaching out in reconciliation after she has been wronged, or cleaning jared and jon's breese terrace cesspool of a bathroom. life teems with the undesirable.

at lincoln high school, teaching economics has been considered for years the ultimate punishment a social studies teacher could be asked to endure. history, government, social issues, geography, even psychology are all words, ideas, points of discussion and role plays. but economics? every stinking economics textbook is covered with demand curves and production possibilities frontiers! did the gods of the social studies forget the chief dictate of our discipline when they created economics? no numbers! complex ideas...fine. large vocabulary...great. just no numbers please. and if you must use numbers, they need to stay put. no adding or dividing, and never, ever make us use formulas. it's just not in our constitutions. there's something i can teach about, the constitution, where the only numbers are the date and the outline numerals.

as you may have guessed by this point, i have been assigned economics. in a faustian bargain, i agreed to teach satan's discipline in return for a full time position at the high school, forever leaving behind the vagabound existance of a "travelling teacher." i am now in my second semester of graphs and charts, and despite the previous hyperbole, it's not actually that bad. nevermind the fact that i've never taken an econ class. no macro, no micro, no nothing. in fact, i'm not even totally clear as to the distinctions between macro and micro. the point here is, i'm surviving.

ok, actually, that is not true. in reality, i'm thriving. i really enjoy teaching something to others that i am currently learning myself. you simply cannot conjure up the genuine enthusiasm that comes from personal growth. i can't tell you how many times each week i catch myself saying to my students, "you know what i just learned about this?" or "i just read the coolest book on this..." from the populist prowress of, "the wisdom of crowds," to the street-level scholarship of, freakonomics, to the unstoppable globalization of, the world is flat, my horizons are continually expanding into the vast and pleasantly numberless world of economic thinking and reasoning. here are the most interesting additions to my neural networks:

1. economics-land does not resemble any kind of reality that i know. it is completely based on relatively unreasonable assumptions (insert "my-first-wife/husband" joke here). this is fun because students constant ask questions that are unanswerable because the struggle to follow the assumptive rules.

2. drug dealers live with their moms and abortion stops crime. and even though most of us would agree that these things simply are not true, it is fun to read how a harvard guy can use economic reasoning to prove that they are.

3. there are no unbiased econ texts written in capitalist countries. you should read the free market rhetoric presented as fact in our books. don't get me wrong, i like our system better than most others, but i also refuse to teach out of those textbooks. i spend so much of each class period saying, "now, the book calls this 'economics,' but what they mean is 'free-market' capitalism."

4. everyone always acts in self-interested and rational ways. (insert any joke you'd like here.)

5. the world is changing really really fast. not only are predatory capitalists preying on the naive like multi-billion dollar snake oil salesmen, but our co-workers and competitors are now as likely to be sitting 2 continents over as they are to be 2 cubicles over.

all this to say, don't be afraid to take on the jobs that no one else wants. doing so will allow you to become who you were truly meant to be. and always, always sit by the person sitting alone when you have the chance.


sara and matt said...

I think it's awesome that a critical thinker like you is teaching econ, Cory, and that those kids won't get the usual message that what is ethical is what's good for short-term corporate profit.

cory said...

thanks. i also begin each class with public enemy's "fight the power." i love flava flave.

Laura said...

LOL - great post Cory. It's awesome to hear someone loving teaching the unlovable subject.

Jon said...

This is the nerd in me but I loved econ and I would love to check out some of the books you have been reading with a little public enemy in the background.

Hans said...

Hola, Cory. Just saying hi.