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Op-Ed: My brother, the Nobel winner, is a product of public schools

Published December 3, 2013 2:10 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

A few weeks ago, I got an early-morning telephone call from my youngest brother, Lars Peter Hansen. He had just been notified that he and two other gentlemen were to receive the Nobel Prize in economics (actually the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel).

For me, the call was hardly a surprise. For several years Lars had been short-listed as a possible Nobel Prize recipient.

Lars' early years were spent in East Lansing, Mich. But while he was in high school, our father took the job of provost at Utah State University, and Lars ended up graduating from Logan High School. He then did his undergraduate work at USU, with an interest in political science, mathematics and economics.

It was at USU that Lars grew intellectually and emotionally. He met and interacted with inspiring teachers and researchers, and he developed a variety of outside interests. For example, he assisted Dan Jones with his public opinion surveys; Lars oversaw the statistical analyses of the polling data.

After graduating from USU, Lars went on to get a doctorate from the University of Minnesota in economics. He didn't choose an Ivy League school, although that was an option, because Minnesota had a superb reputation in mathematical economics. In graduate school, Lars met and worked with two 2011 Nobel laureates: Thomas J. Sargent and Christopher A. Sims.

After graduating from the University of Minnesota, Lars worked for a short time at Carnegie Mellon University before moving on to the University of Chicago. His chosen field is econometrics, a combination of economics, mathematics, and statistics. At Chicago, Lars has been one of the university's superstars.

There are two important lessons to learn from Lars' life experience.

One, you don't have to go to a tony private school, like Mitt Romney's Cranbrook, to get a good education. In fact, Romney's insular education may have been a significant factor in his recent political defeat. Public schools are important, and they need to be supported both politically and financially.

Additionally, you don't need to attend an Ivy League university to be a success. Lars excelled at USU and Minnesota. He received an excellent education at both, and one might argue that going to a state-supported university keeps students better grounded to life's realities. Utah's state-supported universities are a treasure and we also need to support them.

Two, the American system of education, which doesn't pigeon-hole students at an early age, has many benefits. For example, it allows individuals to grow at many junctures during their lives.

While in high school, Lars occasionally received comments on his report cards like "lacks respect for authority" and was told by his high school guidance counselor that he would probably be just a mediocre college student. Luckily, the American system of education allows individual development to take off at any time during one's life. In Lars' case, it was after high school at USU. But for many Americans, it is much later than that.

So it's off to Sweden in a week. I will not only be celebrating my brother's accomplishments, but also those of our public institutions.

R. Dennis Hansen is a civil engineer who lives in Orem.