In his classroom, rigor was its own reward. By Russell Roberts.
This article was originally printed in the Hoover Digest on July 9, 2014.
Gary Becker was my PhD adviser at the University of Chicago. We graduate students were in awe of him and more than a little afraid of him. He had a very big brain and was never one for casual conversation or chitchat.
In class, Becker would often glance up at the ceiling while he lectured, wandering back and forth in front of the class, seemingly not paying attention. We always wondered what he saw up there—his lecture notes? His next great idea? Then he would stop and pause, barking out a student’s last name followed by a question, usually a question about whether a change in one variable would cause another to go up or down. Or stay the same. Often, the student would ask Becker to repeat the question as a way to stall for time, mental wheels spinning furiously, hoping to find the right response. Knowing we might be called on, we paid close attention to the lecture, desperately trying to figure out the implications of the analysis so we could be ready to answer if we were called on.
They were not easy questions. Mostly he was patient with our imperfections. The only exception I remember was when a student declared that Becker didn’t understand Coase’s work. A collective gasp filled the air. We half-expected a lightning bolt to come down through the roof and kill the student on the spot. What followed as Becker sparred with the student seemed close enough to the same result.
Why were we so nervous? We respected him so much; we hoped to earn just the smallest amount of respect in return.