Reform agenda: economics classes that make you think

Original Reporting | By Mike Alberti |

According to Nelson, while programs have significant flexibility in reforming the introductory courses, the vertical, “building-block” structure of the economics curriculum makes it more difficult to change the intermediate courses without additional reforms at higher levels. “When you’re talking about the intermediate courses, you’re really talking about the entire curriculum, because professors teaching the upper level courses now expect students to have covered this specific subject matter,” she said.

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

Intermediate macro as
a history of economic thought

Nelson said that she has successfully taught intermediate macroeconomics as a history of economic thought. “You teach the different theories as they came about in response to historical events,” she said.

“So you start with the classical models in which all markets clear and there shouldn’t be any unemployment. Then you get to the great depression, which showed that that wasn’t very accurate, so you introduce Keynes. Then in the 1960s and 1970s you start to have issues with inflation, so you introduce some monetarism. Then there were some supply shocks so you introduce supply side models.”

“Then you look at globalization and finally you end up with the current financial crisis, and by that point it’s clear to students that we’re at another point where the models don’t work anymore.”

Others have argued that a contending perspectives model can be applied to the intermediate courses as well, without a significant sacrifice in depth. At Dickinson College, for example, professors are required to spend at least two weeks teaching heterodox material in every course, including the intermediate theory courses. “Of course there is a tradeoff,” said Chuck Barone, a professor of economics at Dickinson, “but we feel that the loss of depth is more than offset by the breadth that students get.”


Adding and diversifying requirements

Potential curriculum reform at the intermediate level does not only or necessarily involve modifying the microeconomics and macroeconomics courses. Some programs that maintain the basic structure of the theory courses have nevertheless added additional requirements for students in their second year to ensure that their exposure to heterodox perspectives continues.

Bucknell University, for example, requires majors to take an intermediate course in political economy in addition to the traditional theory courses and statistics. That course covers several heterodox schools of thought in more depth than students get at the introductory level, Schneider said. At Dickinson College, majors are required to take an additional class called Contending Perspectives, which covers institutional economics, radical political economy, and feminist economics. Chuck Barone, a professor of economics at Dickinson who has taught the Contending Perspectives course for more than twenty years, said that the course does not include any neoclassical theory at all. “It’s important to have some space in the curriculum where the other perspectives get to stand alone so students can grapple with them on their own terms.”

Other programs, such as the one at University of Missouri-Kansas City, require majors to take a class on the history of economic thought at the intermediate level, in which students read the writings of prominent economic thinkers from Adam Smith to Karl Marx to Thorstein Veblen to John Maynard Keynes. “Students need to get a sense that economics has always been a very contested discipline,” Lee said. “It’s important that they understand the historical context that gave rise to different ideas…and it’s important for them to be looking at primary texts, what these thinkers were actually saying, and not how it might be summarized in a textbook.”

An alternative vision

Nelson envisions the incremental reforms to the current intermediate theory courses as only the first step in a broader curricular reform. “In my ideal world, I would just throw those courses out,” she said.

Instead, her vision of the economic curriculum replaces the current vertical structure with a more horizontal structure common to the other social science disciplines. To ensure that students achieve a requisite level of depth, Nelson suggested that a department could create various “tracks” or concentrations within the major, allowing students at the intermediate level to choose between them.

“If we don’t have a hegemonic theory anymore then you wouldn’t need to give everybody the same traditional tools,” she said. As examples of possible tracks that departments could offer, Nelson proposed a quantitative track that is similar to the current major; a philosophical track that incorporates more ethical concerns and the history of economic thought; an economic history track; and a track that focuses on policy questions.

“None of the tracks would be isolated from the others,” she said. “Students might be required to take a basic tools class in each of the tracks, and from there the intermediate and advanced courses could be structured more finely” to the needs of different groups of students.

Reynold Nesiba of Augustana College agreed that introducing tracks was an approach that held potential. “Doing that would allow you to shift economics back toward the interdisciplinary field that it really is,” he said. Nesiba said that dividing the major into tracks would expose students to a greater diversity of methodologies and could be an opportunity to cross-list more courses between departments.

“I think it’s a problem that we’ve started telling students that they can understand economics without knowing some history and sociology and anthropology and psychology and political science and philosophy,” he said.


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