Monday, January 19, 2015

The folly of chasing childhood dreams

It has been many months since my last blog post. This is, in part, a consequence of taking a job in my native Cairo, which has consumed most of my time and energy.

This morning, which is a religious holiday in Egypt, as I browsed the news, I noticed this article about the never ending love of cinema icon Omar El-Sherif for his former wife and first love, the other cinema icon Faten Hamama, who passed away a couple of days ago. The narrator commented on how he had thought that rumors of continuing adolescent-like love between the two never having died, despite the fact that they hadn't spoken to one another for over 20 years, not to mention remarriage, were just romantic rumors, until he saw the expression on the now-octogenarian's face when he heard the voice on the other end of the line.

Childhood dreams are difficult to die, and such has been my love-hate relationship with Economics. I took my two introductory Econ classes at my alma mater, where I work currently, and fell in love with the subject. We seemed to be asking all the right questions, and answers were promised in more advanced courses. I left my infatuation with mathematics for this new love, only to discover, once and again, that she's a devious temptress. Promised answers were never delivered. I left the field twice, only to switch back after yet another course or book suggested that the answers are just within reach.

When I went to the U.S., originally to study Statistics, I thought that I had left Economics altogether, and for good. However, when I saw that Ken Arrow was teaching a course on information, and I had an elective to spare, I couldn't resist. The course didn't provide any answers, but promised yet another approach that may yield them. So, I applied to switch back to Economics. Stanford didn't give me a fellowship and Northwestern gave me a full one, and was well known for the prowess of its faculty in game theory, the branch of economics that seemed in the mid-1980s to yield answers that more traditional methods had failed to. So, I went to study game theory, but halfway through the first class (taught by a game theorist who later won the Nobel Prize), it became obvious that they had no answers, either. We were simply in the business of pretending to search for answers, when all we really sought were fame, money, and, above all, recognition for being clever. By then, I had sufficient knowledge of math and statistics to write a dissertation quickly and get out of the business of being a professional student, and the rest is a forgettable, mediocre, academic career.

But that childhood dream continues stubbornly to feed adulthood delusions. When I first arrived at Stanford, 30 years and a few months ago, I had to go through an English proficiency exam, which included timed writing. I wrote my essay on why I had chosen, and then why I had left, Economics. I had recognized form an early age that the world's problems were problems of distribution, not of production (reading Amartya Sen at an early age had this effect on one). Therefore, I left my brothers' charted track in engineering, and pursued Economics, only to find out that it promised answers that it could never deliver. It was like Bertrand Russell's caricature of Oxford Philosophy, enamored with posing the right question, absurdly to the point of disinterest in providing useful answers.

I fell for it, repeatedly. As a student and as an academic economist, I was fooled, again and again, into thinking that getting interested in the question that one has the tools to answer was the same thing as answering the question in which one was interested. Two years ago, I shocked even myself by telling a colleague that "publishing papers is for fools." He was also shocked, but later told me that his wife, also a colleague, explained to him that I meant that the purpose of academic research should be to change the world for the better, and that publishing papers for the sake of publishing papers, getting promotions and better offers, and the like, was a fool's errand. At a conference later the same year, Larry Iannaccone made a similar comment after my presentation at a conference that they hosted at Chapman University. He said that I seemed to want to change the world. I retorted that I know that this is really stupid, but it is easier to work under such delusions. He said that most academics whom he knew just wanted to publish another paper, so this was not so bad.

Upon reflection, I think that the most successful academics seem to be the ones so fully immersed in the delusion of working to make the world a better place that they succeed in publishing more and becoming richer and more famous. Self consciousness is inversely related to the ability to do academic or practical work. Some self conscious people become bitter, others search for paradigm shifts, and others still reconcile themselves to failure (with an occasional congratulatory pat on one's back, like this paragraph, to suggest that one has not failed due to lack of ability or work ethic, but due to thoughtfulness; isn't that a nice way to pick oneself up with a later-than-normal cup of tea while blogging in the morning).

Now, here I am, with no peace of mind or time to spend on writing papers, with a primary objective to publish or otherwise, let alone for careful, even if delusional, thought about important problems and the mirages of potential solutions. All that I can hope to accomplish are tiny perceived institutional reforms and realignments of incentive structures at my alma mater, knowing fully well that partial reforms may make things worse, and having no choice but to try my best in this, at best, Sisyphean task (at least for Sisyphus, there was a lower bound below which the rock could not roll).

Why did I come here? For a last chance to spend some quality time with my first love. Was it better to cherish the memory of that childhood love from afar? Probably. Was it worse than writing pretentious papers to appease one's own and others' egos and pretend to answer important questions? Probably not. Is it all in vain, and is there nothing new under the sun? Most certainly.


Blogger faquih said...

عودا حميدا دكتورنا الفاضل
تدوينة رائعة في شجاعتها الأدبية واظهارها للصراع الداخلي في نفس رجل مفكر عالم، ولعله قدر أصحاب الهمم العالية.

يكفي يا دكتور أن تساؤلاتكم الاقتصادية الكبرى وفكركم النقدي النير انعكس على خطابكم التربوي للمجتمع في هيوستن، وجدد لغة الطرح المنطقي وحرك جمود الأفكار والنقاشات التي كانت سائدة،ولو لم يكن من أثر إلا هذا فهو أثر عميق بلا شك.

أتمنى أن ألتقي بكم قريبا
بالمناسبة، لقد عدت إلى بلادي مؤخرا

أخوكم وتلميذكم
ياسر فقيه

12:33 AM  
Blogger Aadil said...

I am from Pakistan and this hysteria of mostly aimless research has also percolated the academic spheres there. PhD has become a mere tool to move up the promotion ladder. No body is asking genuine questions, which may be relevant to the real problems out there. University lecturers are so absorbed in their publication engine that they hardly concentrate on their students and their specific needs. Moreover, any research done is made so esoteric by uncalled for mathematical and statistical decoration, which prevents any usefulness for general educated reader. It all needs to overhaul big time...

10:02 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Having an endless passion to make constructive change takes one a long way towards starting to make the change itself. But the biggest obstacle still remains those who have a lot invested in the status quo, and who would go a long way to undermine anything and everything that will deprive them of the benefit of living in chaotic universe in which their incompetencies are not visible.

Look for the critical mass who believe in your vision, and with that kind of passion, I believe you can do wonders. Don't give up!

6:47 PM  

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