Econ curricula shortchanging majors and non-majors alike?

Original Reporting | By Mike Alberti |

According to Prasch, the abstract, mathematical nature of the intermediate offerings also dissuades non-majors from continuing past the introductory course. “I cannot imagine why anyone would want to take those courses if they didn’t need to,” he said. “Students understand that they wouldn’t actually be studying the economy in more depth, but rather just continuing to study these few models.”

At most schools, the intermediate “theory” courses, plus additional math courses, are often required before students are able to take many of the advanced courses that in the aggregate explore a broader range of topics — effectively locking out any students that might be interested but who are intimidated by the intermediate courses, Prasch said. “If you want to take a more topical class in labor economics or a policy class in health economics, well, that’s too bad. You can’t do it. You have to run the gauntlet first,” he said.


And what about the rest?

Several economists and educators point out that there is another group of students who might be alienated by the current state of undergraduate economics: those who never take an economics class at all.

“Obviously there are always going to be some people who are just not going to be interested,” said Tae-Hee Jo, a professor of economics at Buffalo State College. “But economics departments have not been doing a very good job of making their classes seem interesting…either.”

Jo said that the association of economics with abstract mathematics likely intimidates many students who prefer a qualitative approach or who are simply more interested in learning concretely about how the economy works. “I think that right now most students would be interested to learn about unemployment or how the financial crisis happened,” he said. “But if they think they’ll just be doing a lot of equations, then they won’t take the class.”

“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.’” — Martha Starr, American University

“One of the costs of the current presentation is that some students who are thoughtful people and want to ask questions that economics should be asking go into philosophy or anthropology or some other field, because they sense that they won’t be able to ask those questions in economics classes,” said Steve Cohn, a professor of economics at Knox College.

And Goodwin added that, especially since the financial crisis, many students may have come to perceive economics, even at the undergraduate level, as embodying an ideology with which they don’t identify. “That’s where you get the stereotype that economics majors are just trying to go to Wall Street and get rich when they graduate,” she said. “Perceptive students can feel the link there.”

Chuck Barone, Professor of Economics at Dickinson College, used the example of a hypothetical student who came to college with a strong belief in social justice. “There’s going to be an interior conflict there,” he said. “On the one hand, that student probably understands that economics is related to social justice and should be studied. On the other hand, there’s an understanding that economics doesn’t speak to the questions that student is interested in asking, about race and class and gender. I think the second consideration tends to win out and that’s why students who are interested in social justice don’t take a lot of economics courses.”

There is a substantial body of academic literature that supports the claim that economics has become an increasingly “self-selecting” discipline at the undergraduate level, meaning that it attracts a particular kind of student while alienating or excluding others. Studies have found that, on average, students who decide to major in economics display signs of being more self-interested, less able to work with others, less concerned about fairness (particularly in the workplace), less likely to give to charity, and more likely to report that they would be willing to receive a bribe than students in other disciplines. While some studies point to a degree of indoctrination, others find evidence that those types of students are more likely to major in economics in the first place.

“It’s strange, to say the least, that there isn’t more concern that economics is attracting this kind of student,” Schneider said. “We need to be thinking about what we’re doing to the students who are in these classes, but also about why other types of students, who we would presumably want in these classes, are not taking them.”

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