Elmhurst College In Depth

The Teacher's Gift

In May, George Thoma will retire as professor of economics after thirty-nine years at Elmhurst. He told us what he has learned, how he has taught, and why he gave the College’s new president a very special gift.

Did you imagine when you began teaching at the College that you would stay for four decades?
My plan when I started was that this would be a stopping-off point. I would teach here while I wrote my dissertation and completed my Ph.D., then I would move on. But I found myself in love with the place and never looked back.

What were your first impressions of Elmhurst?
What struck me was the almost proprietary interest the faculty took in the institution, in its mission and direction. I learned from faculty leaders like Robert Swords and Bill Barclay and Ron Goetz about the responsibility of the faculty to help direct the institution. That tradition is still going on. When I look at the less senior faculty, I see people who are going to continue it, and that’s very pleasing to me.

How have you changed as a teacher?
I’ve become less narrowly focused on my discipline. I’ve learned that it’s not so important that my students learn every esoteric refinement of economic theory. What’s important is equipping them with the skills to become more effective, more analytical thinkers about economics. 

You spent several years teaching in China. What impact did that have on you?

The whole overseas experience, whether it’s for students or for faculty, is probably one of the most transforming experiences a person can have. When I first taught in China, in 1982, I was living in pretty Spartan circumstances, so it brought me down to fundamentals. It made me realize what was important in life and what wasn’t. That’s had an influence on me for the rest of my life.  

At President Ray’s inauguration last year, you talked about one of your students in China.
This student had a dream of going overseas and getting a Ph.D. He was one of the brightest people I’d ever met, and we got to know each other pretty well. Right before I was to leave, he invited me to his home, where he lived in one room with his wife and parents. We had a nice meal, and at the end of the evening, his mother presented me with a Chinese plate with a traditional painting on it. As she gave it to me, she asked me to please take care of her son. I realized that even as she was giving me a gift, she was also giving me a responsibility.

You passed that plate on to Dr. Ray at his inauguration.
I’d kept that plate in my office all these years as a reminder of my responsibility to all my students. When I was asked to represent the faculty and present Dr. Ray with a gift at his inauguration, I thought it would be an appropriate thing. So I passed the plate on to him, with the idea that with this gift comes the responsibility to take care of our college.

Any plans for your retirement?
I expect to stay involved with the College, maybe teaching an occasional course as an adjunct. Elmhurst College is too much in my blood for me to just walk away from it.

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