who are the best teachers?

Most certainly, not geniuses in their field. Harvard economist Larry Summers, for example, tells this story about his Nobel laureate uncle, Kenneth Arrow (1921-2017).

Kenneth had a real problem as a teacher, which is that he didn’t really think like the rest of us. From his Olympian perspective, it was very difficult to understand what students did and did not understand. ….

There was a movement in the Harvard Economics Department in the early ‘70s (this is an experiment that has not been repeated as best I know in the last 45 years) to assure that faculty rather than graduate students would teach introductory economics to college freshmen. This was accomplished in two ways: one is assistant professors were required to teach introductory economics, and the other is that generous souls were prevailed on. Kenneth was a generous soul and he was prevailed on. So, for a full year Kenneth was the teaching fellow for 24 fortunate freshmen. He reported afterwards, and I fear data confirms this, that he had not been quite able to find their level, and of 24 teaching fellows that year, he had been ranked 13th. The experiment was not repeated.

Larry Summers, “Kenneth Arrow Commemoration at the Institute for Advanced Studies”, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, 5 July 2017.

Kenneth Arrow Commemoration at the Institute for Advanced Studies

Lawrence Summers (born 1954) has had a long and distinguished career in government, the World Bank and Harvard University. He is also a nephew of Paul Samuelson (1915-2009), another Nobel Laureate. All three economists taught at Harvard University.

Kenneth Arrow was truly remarkable. His knowledge extended beyond economics to many fields. Larry Summers refers to him as a “gentle genius” who will be missed by the world. I, for one, miss him already, even though I knew him only through his writings.


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