Chillin'Competition

Relaxing whilst doing Competition Law is not an Oxymoron

What makes a great teacher?

with 7 comments

(by Pablo Ibañez Colomo)

The post Alfonso published last Monday made me think. It was controversial, but also a goldmine of follow-on topics. Call me oversensitive, but I could not help thinking he was targeting law teachers when he regretted the fact that fresh young graduates tend to be very critical of the case law without having always reached conclusions on their own. After a bit of back and forth, I thought I would write a post on what I think makes a great teacher, thereby mirroring Alfonso’s own recent post on what makes a great lawyer.

I will start by quoting some giants in our field, pretty much like Alfonso did. The intellectual ant that I am likes to learn from them and always bears their lessons in mind. To make it balanced (and thus to please Alfonso’s desire for neutrality), I will choose a lawyer and an economist, the first from Harvard and the second from Chicago.

In the Harvard Law Review issue dedicated to the memory of Phillip Areeda, Justice Stephen Breyer explained that the greatest antitrust lawyer of all time ‘did far more than simply teach antitrust law. [His casebook] showed the specialists how to blend economics with law (“economics informs the law”, Phil said), as it teaches both subjects together in plain and simple English. It showed the profession how law and lawyers can benefit from a knowledge of other disciplines. It tied this recondite specialty back to general legal principle. And it placed dramatically before the students’ eyes a clear demonstration of the necessary connections between intelligent analysis, law, and the more striking beneficial effects for society that law, when practiced properly, can help us all achieve’.

The Journal of Political Economy, one of the top economic reviews, and edited at Chicago, dedicated an issue to the memory of George Stigler. Thomas Sowell offered a student’s view on the Nobel Prize winner (and another one of my all-time favourites). When discussing the way in which Stigler approached the teaching of the economic side of our discipline, Sowell explained that ‘[f]ew, if any, areas of economics have as much confusion, circular reasoning, definitional traps, and fervent nonsense as industrial organization. It was the perfect place for Stigler to conduct a Demolition Derby. Nor was he hesitant about the task. Theories like “monopolistic competition” and “countervailing power”, which were treated reverently at Harvard (where they originated), were eviscerated by Stigler’. According to Sowell, ‘[w]hat Stigler really taught, whether the course was industrial organization or the history of economic thought, was intellectual integrity, analytical rigor, respect for evidence – and skepticism toward the fashions and enthusiasms that come and go’.

What do we get from these quotes? I would say the following:

  • A great teacher knows the stuff inside out: It is true that not all great researchers are good teachers. But without being at the top of the discipline, it is impossible to be a great teacher.
  • A great teacher necessarily conveys a view of the world: Somebody who has thought long and hard about a particular discipline necessarily comes up with strong views about it. It is inevitable that this (non-neutral) view of the discipline is conveyed when teaching students. There is nothing wrong about it. I would even say that this is what ideal university teaching is all about. Students are interested not only in the substance, but in how somebody, detached from commercial interests and focused only on seeking the truth, sees the discipline.
  • A great teacher takes students very seriously: Students need to be stretched and learn to think for themselves, and this is in no way in contradiction with the above. I fully agree with Alfonso when he suggests that a teacher who indoctrinates students is an absolute failure. The challenge for a teacher is to make students discover and understand for themselves the logic underlying the discipline, the crucial transversal issues that cut across topics.
  • A great teacher does not take her/himself too seriously: The teaching of a particular discipline should be put in perspective. For many, if not the majority of students, a particular subject may never be useful in practice. Therefore, teaching should be oriented towards contributing to a well-rounded education. And those of us teaching competition law are immensely fortunate: when taught properly, it has an awful lot to offer to students, even if they go on to do something completely different.
  • A great teacher shows respect for ideas, not for institutions or authority: I would say this should be (and has been) the central contribution of universities to society. Truth is to be sought without prejudices and without respect for rank or authority. Nonsense is nonsense irrespective of whether it comes from a first year undergraduate or from the highest of courts. Law students in particular should learn that there is nothing mystical or sacred about our legal institutions, even if they are populated by very intelligent and experienced women and men (‘only a brilliant mind can make a brilliant mistake’, Stigler liked to say of past economists).

And now I leave you. I have to teach in an hour.

[Pictured above are two evil Chicagoans (Friedman and Stigler) after a discussion with a colleague].

Written by Alfonso Lamadrid

18 March 2014 at 5:09 pm

7 Responses

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  1. Excellent post, Pablo. This is my main comment:

    You weren’t oversensitive: in my post I did absolutely suggest that many young lawyers come out of their studies with formed views on issues that they may not have though through as would’ve been desirable. In my view, that’s normal and, in the first place, it stems mainly from a human tendency to avoid complexity. As such, it’s mainly attributable to each individual her/himself. Now, I do certainly think at a second level some responsibility lies with teachers.

    In my view, (the main) part of a teacher’s job is precisely to counter that natural tendency by infusing doubts not certainties, and by equipping students with the tools to reason their own way out of uncertainty. And, yes, I don’t think that some (often the most complex) aspects of competition law are always taught that way.

    Even when teachers have arrived to a certain “view of the world” after having “thought long and hard” about a given issue, students should be encouraged and taught to do the same exercise themselves, not just to rely on their professors ability to unveil the truth. And in order to do that, they need to understand the reasons for and against every argument (I go back to my post on what makes a great lawyer). That’s what future lawyers and judges will have to do in real life, and that’s (I think) what legal education should train them for.

    Alfonso Lamadrid

    18 March 2014 at 6:20 pm

  2. Hi Alfonso,

    Thanks for your comments. And happy birthday!

    I agree that students should be equipped and encouraged to ‘reason their own way out of uncertainty’. And then you go on to say that competition law is not always taught that way. Given that ‘uncertainty’ is competition law’s second name, I would say instead that there is no other way to teach competition law. I personally do not see how it can be taught if it is not by doing exactly what you propose.

    You express dissatisfaction with the development of a mainstream view of things, but you do not seem to consider an additional factor behind the trend that has absolutely nothing to do with students’ natural tendency to look for simple, ready-made solutions, or with teachers natural tendency to convey simplified views. As any good lawyer knows, not all arguments are created equal. Some are better than others, and some are plain indefensible. Could it not simply be that some views of the discipline (which, I understand, are dear to you) have been slowly losing ground in the ‘marketplace of ideas’ simply because they are not as persuasive or powerful as prevailing ones (just read Hovenkamp’s Antitrust Enterprise, one of my favourite books, which reflects very well the evolution of the Harvard tradition)? Are you suggesting that the task of teachers is to revive intellectual corpses?

    Pablo Ibanez

    19 March 2014 at 11:36 am

  3. Thanks very much! Now, l propose a game:

    You say: “Some [arguments] are better than others, and some are plain indefensible”.

    Since you are referring to my observations on the at times simplistic criticisms targetting the case law on abuse of dominance, let’s do something: give me an example of a Judgment or a logic that’s plainly indefensible and I’ll be glad to explain how it could be defended.

    I let you choose the case; I’ll try to defend it even if I personally don’t agree with it, and I’ll try to point out how useful and interesting a class discussion would be if its absurdity weren’t simply taken for granted.

    As to your last question: Not at all. Teachers should not revive intellectual corpses. They should teach students to kill (or maintain alive) intellectual arguments themselves. What I’m more than suggesting is that they should not tell students, without more, which ones are dead, particularly when we’re talking about precedents that are in fact alive and kicking.

    Alfonso Lamadrid

    19 March 2014 at 11:47 am

    • Btw, this is a busy week, so I won’t be able to do it before Friday/Saturday.

      Alfonso Lamadrid

      19 March 2014 at 11:48 am

  4. I do not know how this ended up in you proposing to lecture me on competition law and/or how I should teach it to my students, but it sounds pretty cheeky I have to say 😉

    Best of luck for the week!

    Pablo Ibanez

    19 March 2014 at 12:12 pm

  5. One’s cheeky and the other is chickening… 😉

    Now seriously, I would never propose to lecture you, much less on how to teach (which you frankly do better than almost anyone I know). I’m only trying to say, again, that in competition law there are not so many indefensible Judgments as some people suggest, and that (right or wrong) there’s more logic to them than meets the eye.

    Alfonso Lamadrid

    19 March 2014 at 12:25 pm

  6. Granted. And what I say is that, if some ideas fall out of favour over time, the most straightforward (and thus most convincing) explanation is that they are less powerful and persuasive than other ideas (or simply that the discipline becomes more subtle and sophisticated over time). I do not think students and/or teachers are to blame for the inherent lack of ‘punch’ of these ideas. But, to be sure, mainstream views at a given point in time may also be less powerful and persuasive than minority views and in this sense we agree!

    Pablo Ibanez

    19 March 2014 at 12:46 pm


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