Econ curricula shortchanging majors and non-majors alike?

Original Reporting | ByMike Alberti | Alternative models, Economy, Education

Feb. 22, 2012 — Although the foundational assumptions of neoclassical or “mainstream” economics are often presented to students as akin to “scientific fact,” those assumptions, as Remapping Debate recently reported, actually carry strong biases in favor of free markets and individualism. Because students are rarely, if ever, given an opportunity to question those assumptions or compare them with alternative perspectives on economics, they are effectively encouraged to internalize those values, critics say. And a curriculum with a strong bent toward abstract mathematical modeling facilitates the illusion that the materials being presented are simply neutral descriptions of uncontested facts.

WHY SO NARROW?

This article is part of Remapping Debate’s five-part series on the consequences of how economics is and is not taught to undergraduates in the United States. 

Part 1 of the series looked at the divergent perspectives that are ignored by the academic mainstream, and the charge that the current system fails to foster critical thinking. Part 2 showed how neoclassical economics, behind a scientific façade, serves a heavy dose of laissez faire.

In this installment, we focus on the impact on students: not just economics majors, but those who sample the discipline’s offerings, as well as those who are deterred from taking any economics courses at all.

In Part 4, we will hone in on what would be involved in developing more pluralistic models.

Finally, in Part 5, we will investigate the obstacles that stand in the way of changing how economics is taught to undergraduates, and ask supporters of the status quo to explain why they believe that both students and society at large would not benefit from a more open, inclusive curriculum.

Editor

These biases of the academic mainstream have a far-reaching impact on a tremendous number of college students, not only on those who major in the discipline. Many other students take only an introductory class where they are not exposed to alternative perspectives that would help them think critically about the discipline or about the economy they inhabit.

And still other students may be dissuaded from taking any economics classes at all due to the mathematical emphasis or the perceived ideology of the classes. Together, these phenomena have raised questions among a number of economists about what role economics does play, and should play, in a broader, liberal education.

 

Models and then more models”

The vast majority of colleges and universities require economics majors to take a set of five or six “core” classes in their first two years. In the first year, students take introductory courses in microeconomics and macroeconomics, in which they are introduced to a narrow set of neoclassical economic models that purport to explain how the economy functions and how people and businesses act within it. Those courses are followed with intermediate microeconomics and macroeconomics, in which the same models are studied in more depth. Many programs also require students to take a course in econometrics, which is even more purely mathematical than the other intermediate courses.

According to many economists, the narrow focus on a small set of neoclassical models in the core curriculum leads students to think about the economy in an abstract, unrealistic way, and distracts from an empirical exploration of how the economy actually works.

You start out learning the models in the introductory course, and then you learn basically the same models in the intermediate courses,” said Geoffrey Schneider, a professor of economics and the director of the Teaching and Learning Center at Bucknell University. “It’s just models and then more models.”

Schneider said that, because students are often not explicitly taught what assumptions the models rest on, they are not encouraged to think critically about their application. (See bottom box on what graduate economics students think it is important to know.)

What is important to graduate students?

In a recent survey of graduate students in economics, the economist David Colander of Middlebury College asked students what skills they believed were most important to success as an economist. Students were allowed to select multiple skills. Whereas 33 percent said it was "very important" to "make connections with prominent professors," for example, only 9 percent said it was very important to have a "thorough knowledge of the economy." The percentage of students who cited each of the following skills as “very important” is shown below:

  Being smart in the sense that they are good at problem solving 53 percent  
  Being very knowledgeable about one particular field 35 percent  
  Ability to make connections with prominent professors 33 percent  
  Excellence in mathematics 30 percent  
  Being interested in, and good at, empirical research 30 percent  
  A broad knowledge of the economics literature 11 percent  
  A thorough knowledge of the economy 9 percent  

According to John Harvey, a professor of economics at Texas Christian University, the results of the survey are “a function of the fact that economists spend too much time developing complex thought experiments and clever stories and not working to understand the complexities of the real-world economy.”

And Geoffrey Schneider of Bucknell said that it is instructive to study the attitudes of graduate students both because the undergraduate curriculum has been focusing increasingly on preparing students for graduate school and because “it is often graduate students who are teaching undergraduate courses, and their perceptions of what skills students should develop will be a reflection of the skills that they personally value.”

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