Econ curricula shortchanging majors and non-majors alike?

Original Reporting | By Mike Alberti |

For majors, therefore, it is not surprising that the foundational principles and preferences of the academic mainstream — for example, that people will always act “rationally” to maximize their self-interest, and that markets should be allowed to function as much as possible without interference — are often internalized. If students are not given the opportunity to study other perspectives, an undergraduate economics education can quickly become closer to “indoctrination,” said David Ruccio, a professor of economics at the University of Notre Dame.

“Thousands of students take the introductory course every year, but economics has a declining share of majors,” said Geoffrey Schneider of Bucknell. “There’s clearly something behind that.”

And according to Peter Dorman, a professor of economics at Evergreen State College, majors are also being isolated from other disciplines that they would benefit from studying in tandem with economics. “Economists have been insulating themselves from the work of people in adjacent fields. At the same time, a lot of the most interesting work is being done on the boundary between disciplines, in hybrid areas like neuro-economics and health economics and ecological economics,” Dorman said. “It’s very unfortunate for students that they aren’t being exposed to that.”

Several economists and experts added that the narrow focus on abstract models and analytical thinking does not allow majors to grapple with broader, more philosophical questions. “I’m afraid that many students don’t come away with a perception that economics is concerned with ‘big think’ questions,” said Martha Starr, a professor of economics at American University. “Instead of asking them to think about how we as a society can promote the well-being of the population or what their role in the economy should be, they’re just presented with a model and told, ‘Here, memorize this.’”


What about non-majors?

Most critics of the current model of economics education said that it would be a mistake to consider undergraduate economics education only from the point of view of students who major in the discipline. The vast majority of students who take introductory classes in economics do not go on to major in the field. This has caused critics of the current curriculum to focus intensely on trying to reform the introductory courses, as it is the entry point for most students and, often, the only time that they will formally study economics.


Empirical evidence supports the hypothesis that an economics education contributes to or reflects a relatively conservative perspective among students. For example, a 2010 study by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York found that economics majors were less likely to believe that “the distribution of income in the U.S. should be more equal” than other majors; less likely to believe that the government should regulate oil prices; more likely to believe that tariffs reduce economic welfare; and that the more economics courses a student takes, the more likely he or she is to be a member of the Republican Party.

Another study, by the economist Robert Frank of Cornell University, found that taking even one course in economics has an impact on the way that students perceive and interact with the world. In an experiment designed to measure honesty, Frank asked students to imagine that they had found an envelope containing $100 and bearing the owner’s name and address on it, and then asked whether they would return it. Students who had taken an introductory course in microeconomics were found to be nearly three times as likely not to return the money than the control group of students.

According to Peter Dorman of Evergreen State, these studies show that when you’re teaching students that “markets always work” and that self-interested behavior is good, that is “going to rub off.”

 “Thousands of students take the introductory course every year, but economics has a declining share of majors,” Schneider said. “There’s clearly something behind that.”

A common criticism of the introductory course is that it focuses too narrowly on exposing students to the basic neoclassical models without providing them with any real-world context. “If the only exposure that an undergraduate is going to get to economics is in the intro course and that course is just supply and demand, perfect competition and rational people maximizing their utility, then I think we can safely say that they haven’t learned much that will be useful to them,” said Frederic Lee, a professor of economics at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

Robert Prasch, a professor of economics at Middlebury College, agreed that many students may feel disappointed that they were asked to memorize abstract models instead of studying how the economy works or exploring issues that affect them in real life. And he raised another issue: that even the brief exposure to those models and their assumptions might exert a distorting impact on students’ perception of the economy.

“When they graduate, they’re going to remember almost nothing about those models,” Prasch said. “The danger is that they might have learned the neoclassical ‘metaphysic,’ and that’s what they’ll take out into the world, self-regulating markets full of self-interested people.”  (See sidebar titled “Does taking an economics class make you more self-interested?”)

According to Schneider, the realization that they are being presented with a set of models that tend to support free markets uncritically and diminish the importance of values other than self-interest can often deter students from continuing to study economics. “I think there are a lot of students who come into the intro courses thinking that they might want to major in economics, but who leave firmly convinced not to,” he said. “There are students who have a kind of visceral reaction to it. They think, ‘this world you’re talking about does not match up with my experience or my values at all.’”

Send a letter to the editor