Learning through teaching

An economic student's education in South America

by Alexander C. Cartwright ’13

You don’t have to spend much time at Hampden-Sydney to learn that the professors and students on the second floor of Morton are passionate about their field of study: economics.

As spring semester 2011 came to a close I had been going to economics classes in the mornings, reading groups in the afternoons, and lectures hosted by the Center for Study of Political Economy in the evenings; I realized I was in a deep romance with economics, and I was not going to be able to wait until classes started again in August to continue it.

Even though I knew I wanted to do some work related to economics over the summer, I did not know where to start looking. As a Spanish minor, I wanted to partake in some kind of study-abroad experience before the end of my time at Hampden-Sydney, but I did not know how I could mesh studying abroad with both Spanish and economics. One evening, I ‘attended’ a web­inar put on by Students for Liberty about finding an internship where one can advance free-market ideas. I asked the presenter if he knew where I could look for opportunities to intern with an economics-related organization in a Spanish-speaking country, and to my surprise, he pointed me to the ATLAS foundation, a database of free-market think-tanks around the world.

Armed with a short list of think-tanks in South America, I sent out my résumé to several different organizations. Shortly thereafter, I learned that one of the organizations I e-mailed had forwarded my information to The Escuela Cristiana de Liderazgo in Iquitos, Peru, a town of about 500,000 people on the banks of the Amazon River. They offered me a position lecturing in economics. The school offers four-to-six week citizenship programs that include classes in religion, law, leadership, and economics to select secondary school students, university students, and interested adults. The director explained to me that, though all the faculty are very versed in political literature related to libertarianism free-market ideas, the staff and school lacked the formal training in pure economics needed to connect the dots between politics and economics. Shockingly, this is where I got to contribute.

After spending six weeks in San Jose, Costa Rica, taking Spanish classes and interning at a micro-finance bank, I left for Peru with sharpened Spanish skills and an enthusiasm for using market based solutions to combat social problems. During the long flight from Costa Rica to Peru, I realized just how ridiculous it was for me to be going to a new country to meet and live with complete strangers whom I had met only via the Internet. However, when I got to the school and was waiting to speak with the director, I noticed the bookshelves in the waiting room held titles by Mises, Hayek, Kirzner, and many other famous economists whom I had read while at Hampden-Sydney. I knew I was with people who shared my ideas about economics, and my fears eased away.

During my two weeks in Iquitos, I got to teach four classes each day, including “Economía: una Introducción.” I taught the basic supply-and-demand model along with its implications, basic concepts in law and economics, and some public choice economics. Outside of my classes, I was taken to give lectures at secondary schools, nursing schools, and churches. During my lectures, I questioned some of their most basic assumptions about economic life, which quickly made me one of the most controversial people in town. Economic arguments about how the minimum wage increases unemployment, the drug war is counterproductive, legalized prostitution can reduce the prevalence of STDs, and self-interest leading to the social good, were completely foreign ideas.

After my lectures, I always expected objections to my arguments, but I could never accurately anticipate the questions that the Peruvians would ask. I found myself put on the chopping block about why the U.S., the perceived beacon of capitalism, gave bailout packages, stimulus packages, and uses all kinds of other types of non-market-based policies. I also had to defend being a moral, drug-free, non-promiscuous person and still advocate for legalized drugs and prostitutes.

All of these questions devolved into discussions about the individual responsibility we each have when given liberty, the authority citizens have to use government to re-distribute moral values, and the differences between economic and political incentives. These Q&A sessions were no doubt the most valuable part of each day, not only for my students but also for me. The answers to questions I was asked are not printed in an economics text book or magazine; instead they are the result of research projects, long discussions with professors, and texts I read in non-economics classes. In other words, it took the Hampden-Sydney liberal arts prospective to really be a good teacher.
I left Peru amazed at how people half way around the world, too religious to drink coffee or dance and too primitive to have warm water and toilet seats, have such different worldviews than mine, yet they hope to live in a just, prosperous, capitalist, and free society just as I do.

This winter, I returned to South America, to Peru, to continue to learn about economics as a teacher, this time focusing on entrepreneurship in the market process. Later I will travel to Santiago, Chile, to learn about the challenges to economics from outside a U.S perspective.