The world isn't always how it appears

Econ professor challenges students to 'escape the cave'

5/13/2008 | By: Jill Stockton  |

When Tom Cargill teaches students like Tiana Bowlen, the 2008 Senior Scholar for the College of Business, it may be surprising to find where he draws his inspiration.

The economics professor says it comes from Plato’s The Allegory of the Cave:

“I like this story because it has to do with knowledge,” Cargill says. “The story is about a bunch of men chained to the bottom of a cave, in such a way that they can’t see the entrance of the cave — they can only see the back wall.

“They see the shadows of the rising and setting sun and the shadows of people walking in front the of the cave entrance and they try to construct what the outside world is like based on the shadows they see. Eventually, one individual chained in the cave either escapes or is set free.

“He goes outside of the cave and is dazzled by the sunlight and the new knowledge he has of this foreign, outside world. He is also frightened because he is shocked by so many unfamiliar things. He soon returns to the bottom of the cave and describes what he sees to the others.

“The people in the cave react very negatively to his description of the outside world: he upset their established view of their world.”

Cargill says he believes that challenging the status quo gives him the opportunity to reveal new insights to students and keeps them intellectually active.

“This concept reiterates why I like teaching,” he says. “I have always viewed teaching as much more than presenting facts and figures. I like to challenge my students to see beyond the world they know. I have been fortunate to get out of the ‘cave’ and want to do the same for them.”

Teaching from experience

Bowlen says that perspective on teaching makes Cargill stand out.

“Tom is passionate about his teaching and you can tell,” the 25-year-old finance major says. “He lectures during each class — no PowerPoint or stale presentations. He shares first-hand knowledge — his life and experiences — with his students. It is above and beyond what a student would get from only reading a textbook."

Bowlen selected Cargill as her Senior Scholar Mentor. As she graduates this May, she leaves with a 3.959 grade point average.

“I chose Tom as my mentor, because he taught me not to take the first thing I hear as fact,” Bowlen says. “I have learned to research both sides of an issue before making a decision. He’s had a profound impact on all aspects of my life, not just in my academic experiences.”

An eight-year journey

Bowlen began her collegiate career eight years ago as an engineering major.

“Three years in, I decided that working full-time and studying to be an engineer did not allow me to do either thing well,” Bowlen said. “I had always loved math and science and thought engineering was the only area I could use my skills. I was happily proven wrong by the College of Business and its finance degree.”

According to Bowlen, the transition from engineering to finance was challenging, but the business professors provided her with an entirely different way of thinking.

The next step

When asked what she is most excited about regarding her approaching graduation, Bowlen says, “I hope that my family stops asking me if I know what they call people who go to school for eight years.

“I have been married for six years and working full-time and going to school full-time. It has been extremely difficult and I can’t wait to show my diploma to my family and say: 'You see? I did it.'

"Now I am going back to get my master’s degree. I want to be the one to have the last laugh!”

Cargill's other hat: researcher

In addition to teaching, Cargill was also named the 2008 Nevada System of Higher Education’s (NSHE) Researcher of the year.

“This is about as good as it gets,” Cargill said. “To receive the top research award in the state and be selected as Tiana’s Senior Scholar mentor is incredible. To be acknowledged for both my teaching and research is truly gratifying.”

The prestigious Regents’ Researcher Award is given to an NSHE faculty member with national or international statue and an impressive record of scholarly work and recognition. The honoree receives a $5,000 stipend and a medal.

“I have always believed that a solid teaching institution is one that values research," Cargill said. "Unless we are conducting research and looking at how our professions are evolving nothing new can be developed. I firmly believe that teaching and research go hand-in-hand.”

Among his many consulting trips nationally and abroad, Cargill has advised the National Credit Union Administration, the World Bank, Central Intelligence Agency, and the International Monetary Fund. He has also participated at the annual conference on Japan-U.S. financial relationships that is sponsored by Harvard Law School.

“Tom’s one-of-a-kind personality makes economics interesting and has helped enhance his reputation and the reputation of the college throughout the business community,” College of Business Dean Greg Mosier said.

Cargill, who came to Nevada in 1973, was named a Foundation Professor in 1986. In 1977 he was named the University's Researcher of the Year.


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