He draws a supply and demand curve on a blackboard with a piece of chalk. He puts the chalk down, wipes his hands together a little and begins to talk. Not concerned with the traces of chalk now spread all over his clothes, his voice fills the room as he paces back and forth explaining the philosophy of economics — explaining our lives and the reasons behind destitution.
I was a graduating senior at the American University in Cairo when I took Galal Amin’s classes. As a “good” student in my secondary school years I had serious exposure, like many of my generation, to nothing but the sciences. I was particularly good at math and I automatically chose to major in engineering after enrolling at the university. It took me perhaps a couple of weeks to realize I was completely out of place in engineering class. Aged around 17 at the time, I hated nothing more than when people asked me: What do you want to do with your life? I had no idea, but I knew it was not engineering. I turned to the advisor’s office in despair.
In a crowded room up the narrow stairway of one the university’s main campus buildings, a lovely lady sat in front of me to decide my future. “What do you like?” she asked. “A lot of things. I don’t know,” I responded. “You say you are good at math,” she said. “Maybe change your major to economics; it is ‘mathematical,’ the most ‘scientific’ of the social science disciplines.”
This was in the early years of the new millennium, and economics was popular. It guaranteed a career in banking, or if you were lucky, you could ride the wave of migration to Dubai. More importantly however, it was easy to sell to my parents, who were squeezing themselves to pay hefty university fees. But I soon realized that I couldn’t care less about the economics I was being taught; the graphs, the models and diagrams did not concern or inspire me. But once I was in one of Amin’s classes, everything made sense.
It was the first time that I understood the logic behind the theories, and that they were often based on flawed models. “I am sorry to break the bad news to you when you are about to graduate,” Amin would often tell us in his warm, sarcastic tone. “But this doesn’t work in real life”. He would then go about deconstructing the macroeconomic models after I and many of my classmates had just truly started to understand them for the first time in his class. Outside Amin’s classes, economics students were often taught a lot of math and puzzle-solving, but rarely anything that required engagement with the real world.
This was before the global financial crisis of 2008 had forced some economists to fundamentally rethink the way the discipline works, and to realize that mainstream macroeconomic models “suck,” to use the words of economist John Harvey in his 2016 article for Forbes: “Five reasons you should blame the economics discipline for today’s problems.”
Without getting too much into the troubles of a discipline I left behind many years ago, Galal Amin’s legacy as a professor of economics lies in his lesson to his students that we cannot just sit back and let the economy take care of us, expecting models to lead automatically to full employment and prosperity, or an investment boost to bring benefit to all. He taught us that we cannot remove politics and common sense from economics.
More importantly, perhaps, Amin was a master of the declining craft of teaching, the art of lecturing in the classroom. He needed nothing more than a blackboard, chalk, his knowledge and his humor-filled voice to engage his students. After his passing, many former students expressed this sentiment on social media. They remembered his tone of voice, his hand gestures and the way he walked as he lectured about life and economics. They remembered how he valued his students and gave them his time and attention. They treasured him as a teacher, who gave them one of their best experiences of education.
More than 15 years after sitting in his classroom, a particular question he once posed still rings in my head: “What will you do with all that time?” he prompted sarcastically, after explaining a model which aims to save consumers’ time. “You’ll probably sit on your couch and watch TV, or go to the supermarket, push one of those big shopping carts and fill it up with things you absolutely do not need.”
Image: Galal Amin speaks at an Economic Research Forum conference in 2014 – Courtesy: Economic Research Forum