Bringing news headlines into class, Steven Berry introduces students to a new way of thinking
Steven Berry, who won the Lex Hixon ’63 Prize for Teaching Excellence in the Social Sciences, acknowledges that not all of the more than 300 students in his introductory economics classes are bound to become economists. Nevertheless, he is satisfied knowing that he has taught them a disciplined way of looking at the world, one that could serve them in a wide range of future careers. One student described his experience in Berry’s class by saying, “I was prepared for a painful experience with killer curves, endless lectures, and dull materials. … Instead of complex graphs and mind-numbing problem sets, he gave lively lectures about pollution, global warming, insurance markets, elections, finance markets, health care, and how economists solve those problems.” Learning a bit about economics, Berry says, “complements” all the ways of thinking students may employ when they tackle the big questions and problems of the future.
Course: “Introductory Microeconomics”
What excites you about teaching Yale undergraduates?
I really like this course I teach, which is Economics 115. It’s a giant lecture class. The reason I really enjoy it and get excited about it is that the students are eager to learn. They often know nothing about economics coming in, and they’re actually going to take this out to the world. So we are talking about a set of ways of thinking about the world and, toward the end of the course, a set of policy conclusions — things that you can do in the world. And they get it, and that’s exciting.
It’s also true that they are the kind of kids who are going to go out and just do all kinds of fascinating things in the world: run non-profits, or become a senator, or whatever it is they are going to do. I feel like what we learn in that class they are going to take out and carry with them. You can always think about your research, and you hope it’s going to carry forward into the future. You hope that 20 years from now people are going to remember that. But I have 300 or 400 kids in that room, and my hope is that they take these ideas out into the world with them, and that seems like a much more certain legacy, actually, when you think about the effect you are going to have in the world in the long run.
What do your students teach you?
Again, we are teaching them a particular way of thinking about the world that they haven’t encountered. The best thing about them is that they are fresh to it. They kind of pick it up, and they turn it around in an unexpected direction, or they ask a question where your first instinct is to say, “No, you didn’t get it at all.” And then your second instinct is to think, “No, that’s really interesting. An economist would not have said that, but someone who is fresh to the idea will.” So I think it’s just a freshness, the fact that they haven’t seen these ideas before.
What advice would you give a Yale undergraduate about his or her time here?
In thinking about what advice I would give undergraduates, the first thing that comes to mind is that I’m just a huge fan of a liberal arts education, that kind of really classic American liberal arts education. What are some components of that that I think are super important? One is just the ability to get some breadth. Everybody says this: Take the courses that you didn’t think you were going to take.
But the second thing is the importance of the major, and the importance of learning a disciplined way of thinking. It could be in all kinds of different fields. It could be in how do you approach a work of literature, or economics, chemistry, whatever — that there is a discipline that builds from class to class. And to make sure that you do that in your major, that you don’t just treat it as a collection but as a discipline where, in the midst of this breadth, you are really going to learn a very particular way of thinking, and it’s going to build on itself.
And then, of course, a lot of being in college and being at a place like Yale is that you are learning to be yourself, you are learning to be an adult. So I advise that students do all three of those things: get the breadth, get the discipline, get the personal advancement. That’s not very original, but I’m a huge believer in it.
If there is one thing you want your students to learn from you, what would that be?
I tell them several things on the first day of class. It’s an introductory class, and so we have a talk about “what is economics, and what should you take away from it?” We use models, we use mathematics, we use graphs, and we use them to think about human behavior and issues that are in the newspaper. So that’s different than what you would do in chemistry, where you are learning about chemical processes. We think in a different way than one thinks in psychology or a humanities class. I tell them, “you may like this,” and a few of them will, and “you may not,” and a bunch of them won’t, actually. But to the ones who don’t, I say, “I hope, I hope, I hope when you leave this class that this is a complement to all the other ways that you think, that this is part of a repertoire of a way to approach the world.”
I think they usually say that’s true. They say, “Okay, I’m actually not going to take another economics class, but I’m glad I learned this. It was a good thing to learn this way of thinking.” That’s the biggest thing I hope they take out of it.
Tell us about one of your most memorable classroom experiences.
When I think about what’s memorable in the classroom, I don’t think about just a single moment but a kind of moment. I’m teaching a very large class, there are a lot of people in the room, and to some of them I seem very distant, I know, at the front of the stage. But there are moments — and I wish I could say it was every moment, it’s not — but there are moments in the classroom where we just seem like we’re one, where they are just hanging on what might happen, where if I tell a joke the response is instantaneous and it flashes through the room, or if I’m coming to the conclusion of an argument that they are hanging a little forward. Those moments happen sometimes, and those are the ones I hang onto.