May 25, 2000
Vol. 19 No. 17

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    D. Gale Johnson
    Eliakim Hastings Moore Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in Economics

    By William Harms
    News Office

    [d. gale johnson] by perry paegelow

    D. Gale Johnson, who will receive a Quantrell Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching, has influenced the lives of many University students. In addition to this teaching award, which will be bestowed on Johnson today, he also was the 1998 recipient of a Norman Maclean Faculty Award. The Maclean award recognizes emeritus or senior faculty members who have made outstanding contributions to student life at Chicago.

    A former Dean of the Division of the Social Sciences, Johnson also served as University Provost and has twice chaired the Department of Economics. Since his retirement, he has been the Director and Co-director of the College’s program in economics.

    Using lectures and discussions to teach his Chinese economy course, Johnson shares his firsthand knowledge of China with his College students. One of the nation’s leading experts on China’s economy, Johnson has regularly visited there since 1980. In his course, he discusses China’s progress following its departure from a classic model of planned economy to one that adopted some features of a market economy.

    “I try to integrate my observations in what we discuss so students can understand better the topics we’re covering,” said Johnson, the Eliakim Hastings Moore Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in Economics.

    “What I’m trying to get across in the Chinese economy class is three main points: first, why the highly centralized and planned economy prior to 1980 was a failure; second, why the reforms that were instituted after 1980 have been so successful; and third, what problems still remain to be solved as there is a growing inequality between the various regions in the country and between urban and rural areas,” he said.

    Among the material Johnson weaves into the course are experiences he has had watching the Chinese transform their agricultural industry. As farmers were given more freedom in making decisions about planting and other issues, they also were able to produce more food. Similar changes in the manufacturing sector also have produced growth in the nation’s economy.

    “One of the things I tell my students about is a visit I made to an area where apparently the first experiment was done to do away with the collective farming system in 1978,” Johnson said. “About a dozen farmers who had been part of a commune divided up the land into family parcels and worked the land on that basis. Production went up 50 percent.

    “I also mention in class that in the Beijing Historical Museum, there is a document signed by these farmers saying they would take care of the children of their leader if he were arrested or sentenced to death as a result of their action. The document is signed in blood, with the farmers pricking their fingers and putting a thumb print on the agreement,” Johnson said.

    The textbook the students study is based on work performed by one of Johnson’s former students, Justin Yifu Lin (Ph.D., ’86), The China Miracle. Lin is a professor of economics at Peking University.

    “Ted Schultz and I met him on our first trip to China in 1980,” Johnson said. Schultz, a colleague on the faculty and a Nobel Prize-winning economist, was in China with Johnson to study the country’s agriculture and other aspects of its economy, and Lin was their interpreter.

    Johnson also teaches College students in an honors economics workshop for which students prepare a paper that is reviewed and rewritten throughout the year. He teaches the course with Allen Sanderson, Senior Lecturer in Economics.

    “What I enjoy about the honors course, and also my other class, is what I enjoy about teaching College students. I just like getting to know these students,” said Johnson. “I hear from them after they’ve left, and that’s something I find satisfying.”

    The goal of the honors course is to challenge students in their research and writing. “We expect them to write an article that is nearly of the quality of a published journal article.

    “They can pick any subject they want, but what I try to do is help them settle on something that is doable, something they can actually tackle and cover well,” he said. “We expect them to have work that is well-researched, well-written and has a fresh, original perspective.”

    During the weekly class sessions, Johnson and Sanderson listen to student presentations and offer ideas of ways in which the projects might be improved. Each paper goes through five to six drafts as it works its way through the discussions. economics workshop for which students prepare a paper that is reviewed and rewritten throughout the year. He teaches the course with Allen Sanderson, Senior Lecturer in Economics.

    “What I like is the observations the students themselves make of other students’ work. It shows that they also learn from one another,” he said.