Of Teaching Economics At KU And Mathematical Woes

Of Teaching Economics At KU And Mathematical Woes
I was coming out of a local mosque in the San Francisco Bay Area when a young man came up to me, smiled, shook my hand, and asked if I had ever taught economics at the University of Karachi.

I was startled. Yes, I had taught economics there, but that was such a long time ago. He was too young to have been my student.

I said: “Yes, I taught economics for one year, but that was in the 1973-74 academic year.”
"In that case," he said, "my uncle would like to talk to you." He pointed to the man who was standing next to him and who was looking at me with great anticipation. The second man smiled and shook my hands very warmly.

He said: “Sir, I was one of your students.” Sensing my skepticism, he reminded me that in those days I had long hair that fell down upon my shoulders. He said you have not changed at all, other than in your hairstyle.

I asked him for the name of the department chairman and he gave the correct answer. I asked him as to which department was next door to ours and he gave the correct answer.

Sensing my skepticism, he said that he remembered that I had asked a few questions of a visiting professor from Japan in the Arts Auditorium.

And then he rattled off the names of some of the other professors in the economics department. So, he was the real McCoy. I was floored.

Suddenly, my mind traveled back four decades. It was the 1973-74 academic year and I was a lecturer in the Department of Economics. A transformation took place. The people standing in front of me outside the mosque began to vanish. They were replaced by students in black gowns in the hallways of the Faculty of Art on the University of Karachi campus.

I was proudly wearing the green silk gown of the faculty, standing across from the classroom where I taught economics. Students were coming up to me and asking questions. I had just turned 20 and several of my students were older than me. This is how I looked as a lecturer and so this must have been the face this student of mine remembered.

I taught two classes during that academic year. One was a semester on the Principles of Economics for first-year students. The textbook was Richard G. Lipsey’s Introduction to Positive Economics and recommended optional readings were texts by George Stigler and William J Baumol. The other semester was a class in microeconomics for third-year students, who were either completing their B. A. (Honors) or the first year of their MA.

I was committed to introducing mathematics into the curriculum, having come from a pre-engineering background. Students with a mathematical bent did very well in my class. One later became the federal Finance Minister under President Zardari and was reappointed to that position under Prime Minister Imran Khan's administration. Another became the chief economic advisor under President Musharraf and signed the authoritative Economic Survey, while a third joined the Customs Service and rose to become one of the three members of the Central Board of Revenue.

Still caught in my flashback, I saw a middle-aged man turning up in my office one day. He presented his card. It identified him as being with the provincial board of revenue. A bit nervous, I told him I had just started my job and was planning to file my tax returns at the end of the year. He said that he had not come to discuss my tax returns but to discuss a personal matter. “My daughter is one of your students, and your homework assignments have caused her to have a nervous breakdown. In her rage she stomped on her eyeglasses yesterday.” She was in the introductory class. I expressed my deepest regrets to him about the stress my assignments had caused her. Then I asked him what he would like me to do. He said: “Please reduce the amount of mathematics in your homework assignments.”

And then there was the tall and lanky loyal student of mine from Balochistan who stopped a petition that was being passed around in the dorms. It called upon the Vice Chancellor to fire me because I was driving the students crazy with impossible-to-do homework. He had torn it up, he told me, but asked me to "please reduce the amount of math in the lectures." It was probably the first-year students who had gotten all riled up against me. I wish they had simply asked me directly, either in class or during officers in my office, to reduce the amount of math or to arrange for secondary classes in math to let them overcome the deficiency in their knowledge of math.

And then there was this former student from four decades who was standing right in front of me. I asked him what he did. He said he worked for one of the leading banks in Pakistan which was housed in what was the first skyscraper in the city. I asked: “Consumer banking?” He said: “Mostly business banking.” His nephew interjected: “He is just being modest. He is one of their top executives.”

I said: “It is sad to see what has become of Pakistan.” He said, "You should not believe everything you read in the papers. You should visit Pakistan someday and see for yourself how much progress we have made." I replied, "There is no electricity in the homes but plenty of violence on the streets. Does that add up to progress?" He was quiet. So, the first man added: “There is also a McDonalds in every neighborhood.” Wanting to defuse the argument, I smiled and said that progress was in the eyes of the beholder. They both smiled and I knew the conversation had come to a close.

At which point the student introduced his 15-something son to me, who had been standing shyly by his father’s side, and said to me: “I told him my teacher was standing there and it was important that we go and meet him.”

As we parted, the student extended his hand towards me and said: “It was a pleasure meeting you, Sir.” As I reached out to shake his hand, I realised I was not seeing well. My eyes had teared up. I had just gone and returned from time travel spanning four decades.

After he had left, I realised I had forgotten to get his contact information. More importantly, I had also forgotten which of my two classes he had taken.

Two years later, as I was walking toward the mosque, a stranger accosted me. He said, how are you doing? I said fine. He reintroduced himself as my student from four decades ago and I apologised for not remembering him.

I asked him which of my two classes he had taken. It was the first year introductory class. All along I had imagined it was the third year class. I really did not stay in touch with anyone from that introductory class. I had forgotten them entirely. But this man remembered me. That was awesome. But he wanted to talk about today's conditions in Pakistan and wanted me to return. That’s not what I had in mind. I did not want to discuss today’s conditions with him. I just wanted to remember the time we had spent together during the Z. A. Bhutto years.

I managed to deflect the conversation and then we went our separate ways.



A few years prior to my first meeting with this former student, I had received an invitation from a woman with the Voice of America. She said we read your columns with interest. We are having a live talk show on the economic prospects of Pakistan and would like you to join us as one of five panelists. Then she added, one of the five panelists is a former student of yours. I asked, which one? She said he has asked me not to disclose his name.

My mind began to wonder who it was. It was probably one of the three who had risen to senior positions. Well, when the VOA program began, his identity was revealed. He said, “Sir, I don’t know whether you remember me. I was one of the students.”

My goodness. I knew his position on General Musharraf and military rule was totally the opposite of mine. How would this debate progress?

With some trepidation, I said, “Yes.” And then the show began. I said what I had to say and he said what he had to say. Our disagreement was respectful.

Later, I discovered that in an interview, he had mentioned the role I had played in his career. He said I was a “rather mathematical oriented teacher of microeconomics” and given his own orientation toward mathematics and English, the class he took from me got him started in his economics career.

Dr. Faruqui is a history buff and the author of Rethinking the National Security of Pakistan, Routledge Revivals, 2020. He tweets at @ahmadfaruqui