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October 31, 2005

To Think It Up Or To Look It Up - That is the Question

Over the weekend, I got caught with my pants down — again. 

I was engaged in an energetic debate on “some issue” when suddenly the tables turned on me when my bluff was called.  During the discussion, I was caught bridging two sets of data with a hypothetical relationship which I failed to acknowledge as such.  Oooops!  Cover blown.   And I must confess, this isn’t the first time —

It was while I was licking my all-too-familiar wounds of Pyhrric battle that I recalled a similar episode in college.

I was taking a seminar with one of my favorite professors — Will Lyons.  Will was one of those legendary “$1–per-year” professors who really didn’t need the job but really enjoyed teaching college students.  And, like the other elite “$1–per-year” faculty, the administration didn’t have much leverage with him, so he floated up in power to chair the department of economics. 

Since Will was a economics professor largely for his own amusement, he liked to make his classes fun.  For him that meant always maintaining a diversity of viewpoints in each class by pro-actively seeding them with a few out-spoken non-conforming minds.   Instead of just offering a seminar and seeing who would sign up, he would actually personally invite a small diverse selection of students to act as his “participating core” and then let the class fill up with what he would probably characterise as “the audience.” 

And it’s awfully hard to refuse a legendary professor when he personally invites you to take a seminar of his.   It’s always an honour.  And I wasn’t even an economics major — yet I was one of the students he routinely recruited to take his seminars.   BTW, that seemed to be part of his method — his participating core (or “pets” as the jealous majority labelled us) were generally recruited precisely because they were good students “in fields other than economics.”  I was a physics major but his “inter-disciplinary” core also included math, sociology, psychology, history, art, geology, chemistry, and biology.  We all knew we were “Will’s Chosen Ones” but we weren’t always all in the same seminars at the same time.  He would distribute us around so that there were only three or four of us in any one seminar at any one time.

And his method always worked amazingly well.  The classes developed unique and unpredictable chemistries that were fun for both participating students and students who just enjoyed the daily spectacle of wide-ranging intellectual debate.  It often colourfully pitted the mainstream economics and business major majorities against the out-spoken non-economist minority.

My revisionist recollection took place during one such lively debate.  

This debate took place during the early 1970’s when I was prominently wearing my pony-tail, earring, and CO draft status.   The topic had something to do with the impact of urbanisation trends and I decided to question one of the basic assumptions of the discussion by saying something like —

“While it may seem natural to assume that all those farmers are leaving behind empty farmhouses as they pursue fame and fortune in the big cities, it seems to me that hippies are stuffing a helluva lot more people in those farmhouses than farmer green jeans ever did.” 

I think I meant it as a joke but for some reason it suddenly seeded a far-ranging debate in which the largely-straight and generally-silent majority of the classes was suddenly mobilised to participate. Worse, I got boxed into defending a rather obscure position against a unified and unholy alliance between the straight majority and my fellow hype minority.  Given that no one was on my side, I recall holding my own pretty well until suddenly, one of the “straights” who, prior to that moment, I had no evidence could even speak, blurted out —

“Where in the world did you read that?”

Silence … I was horrified.  Caught with my pants down and, worse, check-mated by a class room dunce!  During that pregnant moment, all I could think was — “Gee, should I just admit that I made it all up to support my argument or should I try the “white lie” approach and say — I just can’t remember where I read it. [I missed my calling here as an attorney] … hmmm … clearly screwed either way.”

Suddenly, Will Lyons, whom, I’m sure, had been thoroughly entertained as a spectator, suddenly stepped in to my rescue with the following somewhat pompous, but effective, closing remark, — clearly directed at my “straight assassin” —

“I’m from the Cambridge School — where it is always better to think it up than look it up.”

Thanks Will, for finding a silver-lining in my defeat.

Posted by cmayaud at 01:06 PM | Permalink| Comments (1)
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Bravo. Good story.

And you meet criteria #8 of what we want to see more of.

Posted by: Jeffrey Davidson at December 13, 2005 04:42 PM

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