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 the internet.
     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 anti-intellectual.  Today, 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 anti-intellectual.  If 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.


Stafford Johnson is a professor in the finance department.

Contributors 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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