Lecturer Profile: Elias Kahlil
Position: Associate Professor in the Department of Business and Economics
Qualifications: BA Ohio State University, PhD New School University
Have you always wanted to be an academic?
From a very young age I have been interested in all branches of knowledge. As a young boy growing up in Nazareth I was an incredibly voracious reader; I would read almost any book which came into my possession – a book a day, or even more!
By the age of about 9 I knew that I wanted to be an academic. I never dreamt of medicine or law, academia and thought were what I aspired to.
What motivated you to pursue economics as a discipline?
When I was young I thought philosophy was a comprehensive approach to understanding societies and change. I believed this to the extent that when I was 16 I published a small book “A collection of Essays and Social Commentary” – in retrospect perhaps quite an audacious and idealistic thing to do, but I thought I knew enough to comment on the world!
I was quite disappointed after publishing the book when I came to the realisation that people would not just read my wild and marvelous ideas and be changed! I was introduced to the teachings of Karl Marx and for me, at that time, the ideas just clicked. The main concept being that to understand historical change we must also understand the economy. Material forces shape our society; that is, the material necessities that humans need for survival [such as food and shelter], and the ways we interact to produce these things, are fundamental to society and often the causes of great events, conflict and war. Thus I became convinced that it is these material forces which mould our society; to understand these forces I needed to understand more than philosophy.
So I went on to study economics and the effects of the economy on larger societal change. I later came to have my doubts in regards to Marxism, but it was his teachings which provided a catalyst for my interest in economic theory.
What do you teach at Monash?
I teach History of Economic Thought, the views of long dead economists, views which have been neglected. I impress upon my students the need to study the history of the discipline, what the great thinkers such as Adam Smith, Karl Marx and Thorstein Veblen thought before us, and the ways that their old theories impact our understandings of economic theory today.
I also teach Behavioral Economics, which is a mixture of economics and psychology. This is a new field, which has emerged in the last 10 years out of the idea that people are not as rational as supposed. The unit focuses on the concept of human rationality, basically the notion that humans are sensitive to, and act in accordance with, incentives. The power of this theory and its limits are what we consider especially with regard to creativity and entrepreneurship, evolutionary change of institutions and technology, emotions and ethical judgments and behavior.
What is your view on how Economics is taught today?
Students are introduced to economics today primarily through price theory – the supply and demand model. This overemphasis or focus on studying market equilibrium is problematic in many respects. It would be better to take as a starting point of enquiry the prosperity or well-being of a society and ask something like: ‘Why is this country more wealthy than that country?’ or ‘How does a country become prosperous?’ These are the questions that motivated many of the greatest and most original economic thinkers of the past.
What is your approach to teaching?
I like to tell stories which relate to personal experiences and choices to keep my students engaged. I believe the role of the philosopher or teacher is to bring expertise to the classroom or lecture theatre in order to clarify a student’s own thought, their understanding about the world and the issues presented by the process of learning. I believe we try to over simplify theories; my challenge in the classroom is showing the student how ‘A’ and ‘B’ are related, but how not to be too naïve and simple-minded in our understandings, to be ever-wary of being “ad-hoc.”
What has been the highlight of your academic career thus far?
As an academic having that moment of epiphany, that really is the highlight for me. They only occur once or twice a year; sometimes you may go a couple of years without one! But new realizations and new syntheses of concepts, that is the true excitement of academia!
In terms of recognition, having my articles accepted for publication in journals, that is always exciting! Also receiving the Deans Award for Excellence and research in 2010 was a career highlight.