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Math Geek Mom: Opportunity Cost in European History, 102
April 30, 2009 - 8:57pm

Last week, I looked out at my classes and found many more empty desks than I had expected to see. In this hectic time of the semester, many of my students are skipping class to finish work from other classes. As I looked out at my semi-filled classroom, I was reminded of the last time I skipped a class as an undergraduate, and of the economic concept of “opportunity cost.”

The central concept in Economics is that of “opportunity cost”. This says, simply, that when you choose to do one thing, you are automatically choosing not to do other things. That is, there is an intrinsic cost to everything we choose to do, leading to the famous line that “there is no such thing as a free lunch.” For example, if I choose to buy a steak for dinner, that means that I don’t have the money to buy salmon, too. More fundamental is the trade-off of time; if I choose to spend my time sleeping, the cost of my nap is the work I could have done with that time, and the things I could have bought with the income I could have earned from that work.

I have tried to teach my daughter this concept, with mixed results. I remember once seeing a toy play house for sale in someone’s front yard, and she pointed to it, saying that she wanted one like that. I asked her what she was willing to give up to buy such a play house. She thought about it for a moment, and then came up with a great idea; “daddy’s car” she proposed. I think the concept of HER giving up something to acquire something new was lost on her at that moment.

I am reminded of the concept of opportunity cost when I look out at the empty seats in my classroom. When I was in college, I took a required sequence in European History from an amazing teacher, one that makes me proud to call my self a teacher, too. He always began each class meeting with a short prayer, which was acceptable at our Catholic college. He also began and ended each semester with a speech about what education meant to him, and what he thought it should mean to us. Everyone knew to expect that speech on the first and last days of his classes, so I must have looked odd wiping the tears from my eyes as I listened to him inspire us all to give our best as we progressed through college. His lectures and teaching throughout the class were inspiring, too.

In his class, we learned not only the years and causes of wars, but the intellectual ideas that shaped history by reading and discussing the “great books” of the time studied. And I remember two of his lectures vividly. In one, he described the working conditions of the Industrial Revolution, and to make his point, began vertically opening and closing his arms to mimic the weaving looms of the time, asking us to imagine trying to put our hands into the opening gap quickly enough to tie a knot in time to remove our hands before the loom came down and cut off those hands. In another, he described the working conditions of the mines during that same time, saying that the only way to efficiently mine coal was to send a very short person into the mine to do the job. Just where did one find a very short person? I didn’t truly understand the horror of his answer until I was a parent, but I did remember it. He said simply “send in a five year old.”

When the last day of classes came, I had a paper to finish for another class, and so I did what many of my students are doing this week; I skipped his class to finish my other work. I knew the opportunity cost of skipping class would be that I would miss his last day lecture, but I rationalized this by saying that next semester I would come back to hear his final lecture when I was not so busy (ha!). And so, I didn’t hear that lecture on that last day of classes.

He died that summer. He was younger then than I am now. And so I never got to hear his closing lecture again. However, I will always remember that amazing teacher who taught a core requirement as if it was the most important class he would ever teach. And I will always remember that choice, not the wisest one I made as a twenty one year old, as a tragic example of the concept of “opportunity cost.”


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