Dr Maitreesh Ghatak has been Professor of Economics at the London School of Economics since 2004. He previously taught at the Department of Economics at the University of Chicago. His main areas of research interest are development economics, public economics, and the economics of organizations. Dr Ghatak completed his PhD in Economics at Harvard University and his Master’s in Economics at the Delhi School of Economics.
Personal Webpage: http://personal.lse.ac.uk/ghatak/
How would you advise high-school students who want to delve into economics? If you had the ability to go back in time, what advice would you give to your sixteen-year-old self?
Something I believe a lot of high-school students might not know, and that I certainly wasn’t aware of when I was in high school, is that as much as physics and engineering are very different subjects, there is a certain academic economics discipline, which is really very abstract, conceptual and broad, and different from the practical aspects of economics, which have to do with budget deficits, inflation, stock markets, IMF loans, and other practical applications.
A lot of people, when they find out that I am an economist, say in a long flight, ask me about what I think of the stock market or the state of the world economy. I believe that I can’t possibly answer this question any better than someone who actually is in Wall Street or Dalal Street for the simple reason that a physicist may not be able to talk about whether a bridge is robust or not. A physicist may know the underlying equations or principles that govern the bridge’s mechanics, but clearly the engineering of the respective bridge is a rather practical application of those principles. Therefore, I think there is a clear distinction between ‘academic’ economics and ‘practical’ economics, which is important for high-school students to recognize.
If I were to go back to my high-school days, or advise high-school students of the present day, I would say that it is not possible for school students to delve into the depths or broad ranges of economics in their current state. This is for the simple reason that a toddler cannot be an Olympic javelin thrower – one needs to go through certain steps and gain a degree of maturity before one reaches that level.
As high-school students, you need to know three things – you must be curious, you should learn to invest in certain basic tools, and you should always ask questions. It is important to be curious about the real world, because at the end of the day, books are just distilled thoughts of some people – some of which may be valid and some which may be incorrect or subject to controversy. Indeed, knowledge evolves over time, and no-one has a clear monopoly over what is really true. I think keeping your eyes on the real world and understanding what is going on around you is very important. As high-school students, you must all be extremely curious about the world – both your micro world (your community, your family) as well as the macro world. That curiosity is the first requisite of a good economist. Secondly, you should always strive to invest in some basic tools – whether it is mathematics, statistics or even language. I would much rather you spend extra hours on calculus or probability than read an Economics book. Third, always ask questions. Anything you see, you should ask “why is this happening” and “why is something that could have happened not happening.” Not taking reality as a given encourages you to get to the root cause because it is the hard questions that are worth pursuing the most. These are my three tips for any high school student who wishes to delve into economics or to myself as a high school student.
For every person I talk to, I am always curious about what their view of the world is, what drove them to do the things they are doing, why they made a particular academic journey, and so forth. In particular, very young children ask some basic questions and those questions can sometimes be really interesting.
I strongly believe that teaching is essentially about motivation and communication. I strive for clarity and keep on trying to build into my teaching answers to two questions, whatever may be the topic – why should I care knowing about this and can I build an argument based on simple logic, first principles, and some basic facts? If you succeed in doing it, that inspires critical thinking and students then embark on their own journey to understanding the complex yet fascinating world around us!