Reform agenda: economics classes that make you think

Original Reporting | By Mike Alberti |

A different approach, advocated by Nelson, is to structure the rest of the introductory classes around specific economic issues in an effort to make the class more relevant. This approach, which Nelson has called the “big toolbox” method, utilizes different theoretical frameworks, or tools, to analyze those issues. At least in an introductory class, the approach outlines the broad contours of various theories while attempting to keep the theory in the background and emphasize the issue at hand.

“These theories need to be taught as theories, not as facts,” said Julie Nelson of UMass Boston. “You don’t lose anything by telling students explicitly that the models are using assumptions that may not always hold.”

“I think it can be difficult for students to engage with the material when it overemphasizes theoretical differences,” she said. “You need to make the theories touch down on something the students have experience with.”

“Students right now are living through one of the most interesting economic periods in history,” Schneider said. “They’re surrounded by questions about unemployment, inequality, debt, inflation. It’s actually quite shocking that we’re not giving the chance to discuss and debate these issues in what is probably the only economics class their going to take.”

Reforming the introductory courses to give students a richer, more interesting and more relevant introduction to economics, Schneider said, would “probably attract more majors, or at least encourage people to take more economics classes in the future,” and would set the stage for further reform at higher levels of the curriculum.


Intermediate courses

In their second year, economics majors at most colleges and universities are required to take intermediate level courses in microeconomics and macroeconomics, in which the neoclassical models that were presented to them at the introductory level are elaborated further. For non-majors, the courses are nevertheless the gateway through which they must pass before being permitted to take courses on specific topics of interest to them.

“You start with the intro courses, where you’re taught a certain set of materials,” said Neva Goodwin, co-director of the Global Development and Environment Institute at Tufts University. “Then the intermediate courses cover precisely the same material with fewer real world examples and more math. That’s really bizarre.”

And because they are even more purely theoretical and rely more heavily on mathematical modeling — at many schools, the intermediate level economics courses also require calculus — many educators have argued that they serve as a barrier for students who wish to continue to study economics, but who may not want to major in it. Along with the intermediate “theory” courses, most majors are required to take another mathematically-based class — generally either statistics or econometrics — in their second year.

Some programs, such as those at Princeton University and the University of Rochester, however, offer at the intermediate level both a “high-math” track, which requires a strong foundation in calculus, and a “low-math” track, which does not. Students who take the low-math track are still able to take the majority of the advanced topical courses. While many economists and educators believe that this two-track system is an effective way to make the intermediate courses more accessible while still allowing students who want to take more mathematical versions to do so, not all departments will have the faculty resources to offer two sets of courses.

Contending perspectives on unemployment

In an illustration of how the big toolbox method might work in practice, Jack Reardon, a professor of economics at Hamline University, said that an instructor might spend one or two classes focusing on unemployment.

“Students would be aware of the basic assumptions of the neoclassical perspective, so they would know that it focuses on rational individuals who basically try to maximize their satisfaction, and outcomes that are determined by the intersection of supply and demand,” he said. “So, the way that the neoclassical perspective might describe unemployment is that workers are demanding a greater wage than the market is offering, and if they were to accept the market wage, there would be no unemployment.”

In contrast, Reardon described a Post-Keynesian perspective of unemployment, which emphasizes the concept of aggregate demand — the total amount of demand that exists in a market or an economy. If aggregate demand is too low, according to this theory, then consumers will be spending and borrowing less money, which will influence the number of people that can be employed. And a Marxian or Feminist perspective, he said, might emphasize how power dynamics play out in an economic context. “Students don’t find it much of a stretch when you tell them that unemployment might have something to do with power,” he said, “whether that’s the disparity of power between capital and labor, or men and women, or between individual firms, or even different types of workers.”

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