Monday, January 08, 2007

Sir Alan's Fiftieth Anniversary of his First Professorial Lecture

Today, Monday 8 January 2007 is the first teaching day of the University term in the UK. I had reason to visit the campus of Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh, UK, where I was a professor for 24 years until I retired in March 2005 – I delivered nearly 200 exam papers that I had graded over what we used to call the ‘vacation’ (hence the light blogging since Thursday - each student deserves the full attention of the grader, and admin was worrying over deadlines).

It looked pretty normal for a first day of a January term; raining as usual (light drizzle) and slightly windy. New students at the Business School stood around the reception area, registering and meeting strangers. From my age and appearance, some looked at me, presumably wondering if I was faculty or a bureaucrat. I was delivering two boxes of the examination papers from the December Diet in my former day job, and hurrying to lunch with some of my former colleagues.

On this day, 50 years ago, my friend and colleague, Professor Sir Alan Peacock, stepped up the podium at the University of Edinburgh, to deliver his first professorial lecture in economics to first year students in the MA class.

It was the tradition in Scottish universities at the time, and for about ten years afterwards, for first-year classes to be taught exclusively by the professors, a tradition that lapsed sadly under the twin burdens of university expansion and the heavy increase in administration that cut professorial contact with students quite dramatically. Over my time, teaching contact of senior faculty with their students reduced exponentially.

Alan Peacock was (and is) a student-centred teacher, fully committed to helping those students who want to learn with advice, encouragement and a friendly ear. He did the same with junior staff. I know, from my casual meetings with him when I was looking for a text and relevant articles for the honours economics class I used to teach in public finance – a subject in which he excelled, particularly from his knowledge of German and Italian sources and personal contacts with continental universities – just how much trouble he would go to introduce me, and my students, to usable and enlightening sources.

He also knew many of the ‘household’ names of economists around the world, including in the USA, and could enliven any discourse about theories we associate with them by the judicious use of reported conversations he had or seminars he attended (plus the occasional ‘scandal’, always told with a twinkle in the eye and the impeccable taste of a Scottish gentleman and scholar).

He taught at Edinburgh, York and LSE, and knew the then ‘giants’ of the profession (he has numerous honorary doctoral degrees), falling firmly onto the classical traditions of economics – a veritable Adam Smithian political economist of the (UK) liberal school – though perfectly familiar with the neoclassical paradigm. His theoretical understanding is also heavily leavened with his experience as Chief Economist in the Department of Trade and much contact at the heart of government (but never a ‘party’ man).

Driving home after lunch, I couldn’t help thinking about what his 1956 undergraduate class thought of their new professor on what was bound to have been as bleak a day as it is today; where did they go from there and what have they done with their lives? Did any become economists (next time I see Alan, I shall ask him)?

I saw him briefly on Saturday at another professor’s 70th birthday reception and we discussed the new paper he has written and is making ready for press, and the next one he is starting for a talk to the Royal Society of Edinburgh (Adam Smith was among its founders in 1783) on the economics of the recommended responses to climate change. On the application of economics to modern problems he takes no prisoners when confronting sloppy thinking and crass errors. I reflected afterwards that if younger economists displayed half the energies put to work by Alan Peacock in his 80s, the profession might be in better shape.

If Adam Smith’s legacy was in the hands of the likes of Sir Alan Peacock it would be in safer hands that it is today.


Blogger mc1cap said...

It seems that I have come across your article, Sir Alan's Fiftieth Anniversary of his first Professorial Lecture. two years after it was first published. Nevertheless, I was fascinated by it because I was, indeed, present at that inaugural lecture in January 1957. I joined the University in October 1956 and graduated in Economic Science in 1960 in the first (small) group of students who had been with Professor Peacock in his first four years at Edinburgh. I must have been inspired to greater things by that first lecture as I went on to become his Gold Medalist in Economics in 1957 and again in 1958, going on with half a dozen fellow students to become his first batch of fully-fledged Economics students from Edinburgh.
Did any of us go on to become economists? Well, not that I know of if you mean academic economists although I have always considered myself an amateur academic economist even if I have not been a member of the profession; I am sure that some of my peers are in the same position. Keith Lumsden, who was a year ahead of me and was my mentor and predecessor as President of the Edinburgh University Economics Society and who passed his mantle on to me in 1959 has, of course, gone on to greater things and I have followed his career proudly over the years.
You were correct in saying that Professor Peacock was a students' professor: we always considered him "one of us" and he participated keenly in all that we did. After I graduated in 1960 he helped me to secure a position with his friend Professor Sylos Labini at the University of Bologna to work on the Italian Balance of Payments. After that I went into business on my own account and left the profession. However, the memory of that first lecture in Edinburgh lingers on: I regularly come across his articles for the Scotsman (I recently posted a comment on his article on Global Warming in that journal) and various press notices about his activities; certainly his energy knows no bounds.
I now reside in Brazil near Rio de Janeiro involved in orange plantations as an activity ( I would really be very interested to know his opinion on the current world economic problems and to be able to pass on my own (amateur) comments as well. I doubt if I will have that opportunity but once an economist, always an economist...

6:38 pm  
Blogger mc1cap said...

6:57 pm  

Post a Comment

<< Home