Reform agenda: economics classes that make you think
Until relatively recently, history of economic thought was a requirement in most economics programs in the United States. According to Steve Zilliak, a professor of economics at Roosevelt University, “those courses were almost entirely wiped out in the 1970s. I think it happened partly because of the rise of neoclassical economics and the sense that it wasn’t important to study other ideas because we had found the ‘right’ one. It’s an embarrassing tragedy.”
Zilliak said that departments should think about requiring economics majors to take a course in moral philosophy, as well. “It would be so easy for students to go all the way through and not have a sense that economics is concerned with issues of justice and virtue,” he said. “Students have no idea that Adam Smith was a moral philosopher, that what we now call economics comes out of a particular philosophical tradition.”
Enhancing offerings to non-majors
Another advantage of offering additional courses at the intermediate level is that non-majors who might be intimidated by or uninterested in the theory courses still have the option to continue to study economics. Currently, few departments offer a range of topical courses at the intermediate level, reserving them only for students who have reached an advanced level. The result of this structure is that those students not interested in intermediate theory courses are effectively shut out from all but an introductory level economics education.
“All departments have a dual responsibility,” Schneider 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.”
For example, Zilliak said that a course situating economics within a context of moral philosophy, including the writings of influential economists such as Adam Smith in a broader reading list alongside philosophers like David Hume and John Stuart Mill, could be open to non-majors and would not need to require the principles sequence.
John Harvey of Texas Christian University said that departments could offer intermediate courses in more policy-focused areas, such as health economics or environmental economics, instead of saving those courses until the advanced level. “There’s a lot of opportunity to cross-list those courses with other departments,” he said, which can make them even more accessible.
And several educators said that economics departments should be offering non-majors an opportunity to learn about the financial crisis. “You see a lot of places offering a financial crisis course at the advanced level now,” said Daniel Underwood, a professor of economics at Peninsula College. “I’m sure that’s very valuable for majors, but what about the rest of the student body? Other departments are looking to economics to educate students about the crisis, and I don’t think you can argue that you need to know calculus to gain some insight into it.”
In the next part of the series, to be published Mar. 8, we explore options to reform the advanced portion of the economics curriculum and review potential pedagogical reforms.