Econ curricula shortchanging majors and non-majors alike?

Original Reporting | By Mike Alberti |

Training or liberal education?

“Economics is one of the fields, like history or English, that we think of as being part of a well-rounded, liberal education,” said Robert Garnett, a professor of economics at Texas Christian University. “But most economics departments have not been taking the liberal education side of what we do seriously.”

“If somebody goes to college, gets a degree, and essentially knows one thing, you can say that they’ve been trained…That’s very different from being educated.” — Robert Prasch, Middlebury College

“If somebody goes to college, gets a degree, and essentially knows one thing, you can say that they’ve been trained, in much the same way my dog was trained,” said Robert Prasch of Middlebury. “That’s very different from being educated. To be educated, you need to be able to compare and contrast, to weigh evidence and choose arguments. Somebody who knows one thing cannot compare it to anything else. My dog can’t do that.”

Thomas Palley, an economist and an associate at the New America Foundation who writes frequently about economics education, agreed. “Students are getting cheated,” he said. “It’s shocking how little economics majors are learning, how little breadth they get. They are not being given the opportunity to learn about the economy they inhabit.”

Schneider said that economics departments have not been successful at providing access to a breadth of ideas and skills to non-majors, either. “All departments have a dual responsibility,” he said. “They have to cater broadly to the needs of their majors, but they also have a general education responsibility, to offer classes that are accessible and interesting to non-majors. Economics has been failing at both.”


The cult of expertise and a mission unfulfilled

According to Palley, the narrowness of the economics curriculum — both in terms of the narrow range of perspectives offered to majors and the narrow range of courses available to non-majors who have not taken intermediate theory courses — also serves to reinforce the perception that economics is a field that is best left to experts, which discourages many students from participating. He quoted George Bernard Shaw, who once famously said: “All professions are conspiracies against the laity.”

“That is true to a much more extreme extent in economics than in other disciplines,” Palley said. “Economics has worked very hard to develop its own private language in order to consolidate its power and make it resistant to criticism that does not come in that language.”

Barone agreed. “There’s a power that comes with positioning ourselves as the gatekeepers of important knowledge, because it makes people dependent on us to translate for them” he said. “We’re the only ones who have the keys and you have to come through us to get it.”


Several economists said that the requirement that students take calculus as a pre-requisite for intermediate courses in economics has a particularly deterring impact on non-majors, effectively closing out both those intermediate courses and the advanced courses for which they are prerequisites.

Tae-Hee Jo of Buffalo State College explained that while calculus is primarily used to calculate areas underneath curved functions — like supply and demand — many courses could be taught using more theoretical or philosophical frameworks, with the empirical investigation done using basic statistical techniques.

“There are a lot of courses we could be teaching, even at the advanced levels, that don’t require calculus,” Jo said. “By requiring that as a stepping stone for everything else, you’re shutting out a lot of students who wouldn’t otherwise need to take it.”

That dynamic is visible even at the undergraduate level, Barone said. “It’s attractive to a certain kind of student to gain access to this language. For other students, even the perception of that kind of exclusivity is going to be alienating.”

For example, Robert Prasch of Middlebury pointed out that there are ways that the structure of the current curriculum has actually been designed to limit access to the major for certain kinds of students. “The intermediate courses are really gatekeeper courses,” he said. “They’re so abstract and mathematical that the math has just become an end in itself. It’s like fraternity hazing in a way.”

“The people who get caught in that filter,” and thus do not major in economics, “are probably the people we want in the field, the kind of students who ask questions and want to think critically, who could move the discipline forward,” he said.

Schneider agreed, and added that, “Professors and departments have an interest in reproducing themselves.”

“There’s a disincentive to invite in students who might be critical of the perspective you’re teaching,” he said. “So it makes sense, in a way, that most of the people who end up becoming economists are people who see the world in this way.”

According to Barone, that approach runs contrary to a liberal philosophy of education, which begins with the principle that students should “develop the intellectual capacity and the knowledge base and the critical thinking skills to be able to improve the state of humanity on the planet.”

“That’s a very noble, humanistic goal,” he said, “and we have been failing as a discipline for more than fifty years to live up to it.”


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