From ivory towers to realities

Author: Asad Zaman
Publication Year : 2015

As MIT freshmen are wont to do, we were up way past midnight discussing big absorbing questions like the meaning of life. We realised that none of us had a clue and decided to ask our professors. A natural candidate was our history professor, who seemed approachable and had engaged us in interesting discussions in class. He gave us an answer which seemed satisfying at the time. He said that we had to learn the basics we were being taught, before we could tackle the big questions. It was many decades later when I realised that we had been swindled. In a classic bait-and-switch manoeuvre, we were tempted with the possibility of learning wisdom and sold an entirely different package.Like the lead characters in the TV show “THE BIG BANG THEORY”, after my PhD from Stanford I had world-class technical skills, but was clueless about personal relationships. We took after our teachers. One of our professors, who went on to win a Nobel Prize, was going through a messy divorce, showing that intellectual brilliance does not translate into emotional intelligence. At a recent MIT Commencement ceremony, former MIT graduate Megan Smith emphasised in her keynote speech that the “heart” was an essential component missing from the MIT motto: “mens et manus” or “mind and hands”. Recent research confirms traditional wisdom that our hearts, far more than our minds, determine our success in our lives and careers.Like many of my classmates, a lifetime of experience has forced me to unlearn many principles that I was taught, and to teach myself many essentials that were omitted from my education. One of the things I had to unlearn was the narrow specialisation inculcated in graduate school. As an expert on Bayesian Econometrics, I was supposed to leave politics to political scientists, the history of emergence of capitalism to historians, and the related misery of billions of people living on less than a dollar a day to poverty experts. In the process of writing a textbook on econometrics, I learned that my supposed expertise was an illusion. The elaborate, elegant and complex theoretical structures I had studied had no match with the crude realities of real world data sets. To ply their trades, experts routinely disregard this mismatch. Commenting on the Global Financial Crisis, the Nobel laureate Robert Solow said that the economic theories being used for policy seemed designed for an alien planet. Those experts who do realise the mismatch and permit reality to intrude upon ivory tower theories are shunned for straying from orthodoxy. At a recent Econometric Society conference in Istanbul, attended by leading economists, everyone agreed that we spend an excessive amount of time solving theoretically engaging problems, and almost none on solving pressing real world problems.The most important lessons missing from THE UNIVERSITY CURRICULUM are about compassion and kindness, tolerance and openness, diversity and pluralism, struggle and sacrifice, and of the central importance of the ideal of service to mankind. As the recent spate of RACIST INCIDENTS shows, practice differs from the preaching of openness and tolerance. I was witness to strong ideological intolerance in the academia. Our macroeconomics professor at Stanford, Duncan Foley, had impressive achievements before he started to question some of the fundamental assumptions of economic theories. He was then rejected for tenure, ridiculed at seminars and shunned as a pariah at all the prestigious universities. Similar treatment is given to all who venture outside the fold of orthodoxy. A mild-mannered, orthodox economist, David Card, had the misfortune to publish research showing that, contrary to conventional economic theory, increases in minimum wage did not increase unemployment. In an interview, he said that he changed his research field because he lost friends and economists were angry with him for being a traitor to the cause of economics.Tolerance and openness to diversity come very hard to those schooled in the binary logic of mathematics and science. The Cherokee proverb “Never criticise a person until you have walked a mile in his shoes” offers deep wisdom. To achieve understanding and empathy, one must suspend judgment, and learn to live in the world of the other. Training in this essential skill so desperately needed today is missing from current educational curricula.

The writer is vice-chancellor of the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics.

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