Cultivating Intellectual Depth
By Stafford Johnson, Professor, Department of Finance
In an interview with Charlie Rose, Dr. Nannerl Keohane, President of
Duke University, was asked what she thought was the real mission of
her university. After
some reflection, Dr. Keohane responded that she saw the mission of
Duke University as one of making each student a more interesting
person. The simplicity of her answer initially surprised me.
I, of course, was expecting something a bit more elegant
(which one can find on Duke’s Website), or at the least, something
more practical (training doctors or engineers or teaching business
students how to make money). However, after my own reflection, I
started to realize that trying to make a student a more interesting
person requires doing well many of the things we in academia already
do – instilling knowledge, developing math or logic skills, or
enlightening a student’s feelings and sensitivities. Until Dr.
Keohane’s comment, though, I must admit that I was unaware that I
was trying to turn out more interesting students.
If anything, as a finance and economics professor for over 25
years, I often worried that my teaching might actually be dulling an
inherently interesting person.
Over the years, though, I have tried to turn out students
with some depth to their understanding of finance and economics. Dr.
Keohane’s vision, in turn, led me to conclude that at a very
fundamental level, the challenge of making students interesting lies
in developing some depth to their understanding of subjects.
Today, with a media-influenced society, the challenge of developing depth
in a student’s understanding of a
subject is not an easy task. On
observing today’s youth, the writer Herbert Stein commented that
today’s students seem ‘to know a lot, but understand very
little.’ Thus, perhaps the salient question facing academics today
is how do we better develop depth in our students’ knowledge and
understanding of subjects. The
answer probably varies by discipline. In my own teaching, though, I
have discovered some general pedagogical guidelines that I believe
have helped cultivate some intellectual depth in my students.
First, the fostering of intellectual depth, I believe, starts with
the development of the student’s intellectual curiosity.
As academics, most of us were drawn to our disciplines by an
intellectual curiosity for our subjects.
Sharing with students why we have a passion for our subject
can serve to promote their own interests.
In teaching finance, for example, I often intimate to my
students that while my interest in the subject was motivated partly
by money, I was also drawn to the mathematics used by the
discipline, as well as by finance’s ability to explain what I
considered to be interesting phenomena: the capital formation
process, how exchanges function, the Eurocurrency market, monetary
policy, or computer program trading strategies. When I taught
economics, I used to start my principles classes by telling my
students a very trite story about some average person living in NYC:
The person got up every morning at 7:00, drank several cups of
coffee to wake up, drove to work, worked eight hours, drove home, and
so on. While I
acknowledged the simplicity of the story, I would tell them that if
they wanted to make the story more interesting, then they should
consider the fact that there are millions of people in NYC, along
with over 100 million people in the U.S., who do roughly the same
things every day, and then I suggested that they ask themselves the
question: How is it that an economic system knows how to produce
just enough coffee to wake everyone up, just enough gas to get
people back and forth to work, and so on? The students will later learn the answer to that question
lies in understanding how a market-oriented,
capitalistic system works.
Telling the NYC story or explaining in general how a program trading
strategy works served not just as a starting point for my classes,
but it also was a way for me to spark their intellectual interest.
Expressing to students what we find intellectually intriguing
about our subjects is something that comes naturally for most of us,
but we need to be aware that such expressions are also good ways to
stimulate a student’s intellectual curiosity, as well as a good
starting point for cultivating intellectual depth.
A second way to develop depth is requiring that students master
seminal works. Whether it is Keynesian economic theory, a work of
Shakespeare, Einstein‘s theory of relativity, or the philosophy of
Descartes, a student who studies such intellectual works inevitably
learns how great minds work, the subtleties inherent in great ideas,
the power of logic, and the beauty of thoughts and ideas. In many of
our finance classes, students are required to study the Nobel
Prize-winning works of Modigliani, Miller, Markowitz, Sharpe, and
Scholes. I strongly
believe that the mastering of these seminal works has brought depth
and quality to our majors’ understanding of finance.
A third way to foster intellectual depth is requiring that students
learn to express concepts in different ways. In finance, for
example, we frequently require that students explain a theory,
strategy, or idea mathematically, graphically, intuitively, and
sometimes with a computer model. By doing this, our students’
understanding, as well as retention, of theories and ideas are
enhanced. In an executive MBA class, a lawyer acknowledged the value
to her from my insistence that she focus more on expressing the
financial concepts mathematically rather than verbally (which she
already did well); in contrast, an engineer acknowledge the
importance of my urging him to focus more on expressing concepts
verbally rather than mathematically. Both the lawyer and the
engineer gained some depth to their understanding of finance by
learning how to express financial concepts more than one way.
Finally, intellectual depth is achieved when students are able to
relate the subject to other areas.
In writing about the differences between science and the
humanities, the novelist Tom Robbins wrote that “the scientist
needs the humanist to keep the scientist human, and the humanist
needs the scientist to keep the humanist honest.” Over the years,
I have found that our finance students need to see more than an
abstract concept, a statistic, or a dollar sign; they also need to
be able to connect the idea to what is real. The growth in America's
gross domestic product from $3 trillion in 1984 to over $9 trillion
today, or the Dow Jones Average increase from 700 in 1982 to over
10,000 today, I tell my students, can also be explained as an
economy that has evolved into one that can take an office filled
with information and put it on a small computer chip, as one in
which planes can take off every minute from any major urban airport
and go anywhere in the world, and as one in which data and
information can be accessed in minutes via satellites and through
In the 1960s, the late historian Richard Hoffstader wrote a book
about anti-intellectualism in America. Evaluating different
historical periods in terms of their literature, court decisions,
religious movements, and other social indicators, Hoffstader defined
different historical periods as being either intellectual or
when we look at how vulnerable our society is to the spin of the
media or the politician, we might be inclined to conclude that we
are living in a period that Hoffstader would define as
so, in a very fundament way, our jobs as academics may well be one
of countering the spin of society by promoting intellectualism. By
enlightening our students’ intellectual curiosity, exposing them
to great thinkers, or helping them master complex theories and
concepts, most of us, whether we realize it or not, are promoting
intellectualism. In the end, the final product is a deeper, more
intellectual, and hopefully, more interesting person.
Johnson is a professor in the finance department.
to the Lesson Learned series have been selected by their deans to
share their experiences in the classroom, describing a teaching
technique or exercise that they have found to be effective.
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