For U.S. universities, a failing grade in economics

Original Reporting | By Mike Alberti |

Another fundamental precept of neoclassical economics is that markets tend naturally to “equilibrium,” meaning that supply will equal demand unless there is an outside disruption. Markets are assumed to be a preferable way of organizing economic activity because they are said to allocate resources efficiently, which in turn, neoclassicists say, makes economic growth possible.


The curricular structure and major requirements in economics departments in the United States is strikingly similar across colleges and universities. In their first year, students are generally required to take introductory courses in microeconomics and macroeconomics, which are sometimes substituted for with a single-semester “principles” course. Majors are encouraged to take either introductory calculus or introductory statistics or both in their first year.

In the second year, majors are generally required to take intermediate microeconomics and macroeconomics courses and a third course called “econometrics,” as well as more advanced math courses such as linear algebra. The introductory and intermediate microeconomics and macroeconomics courses plus econometrics are often referred to as the “core curriculum.”

In their third and fourth years, majors are given more flexibility to choose electives or “field” courses, such as finance, labor economics, international trade or monetary theory, which are generally taught from a neoclassical perspective. Some schools may offer electives on the history of economic thought or political economy, but these courses are rarely required. For students wishing to go on to graduate school in economics, substantially more mathematics courses are usually recommended, such as differential equations, game theory, and advanced geometry.

Other schools of thought begin with different assumptions and draw different conclusions. These various perspectives constitute what is often called “heterodox” economics. Some, like Marxian economics, predate neoclassical economics, while others, like ecological economics, have come about relatively recently, partly to fill perceived gaps in neoclassical theory. 

But neoclassical economic theory remains by far the dominant paradigm in the discipline as a whole, and that dominance is even more concentrated at the undergraduate level. More than half of undergraduate students will take at least one class in economics during their time in college. In the 2008-2009 school year, over 26,000 students were awarded a bachelor’s degree in the field. But regardless of which of the approximately 3,000 economics departments they study in, the curriculum and course content is likely to be remarkably similar.

That is because over the last several decades a homogenized model of an undergraduate economics curriculum has proliferated in the United States and, to a slightly lesser degree, abroad (see sidebar). There remain a handful of schools in the country that explicitly endeavor to expose students to other perspectives and give them access to the tools that they provide, but these programs are becoming increasingly scarce.

“If you want to learn about Marxism, or feminist economics, or institutionalism, you need to go to study at one of these dozen or so schools,” said Jack Reardon, professor of economics at Hamline University and the editor in chief of the International Journal of Pluralism and Economics Education.

Robert Prasch, an economics professor at Middlebury College, explained that while other university departments often focus on a dominant school of thought, economics is unique among disciplines in the intensity of its reluctance to offer students any exposure to alternative perspectives. “There’s a sense in most departments [other than economics] that they have to provide a portfolio of outlooks and attitudes,” he said. “If you had an English department without any feminist content, they’d say, ‘We have to go hire somebody.’ Or if a history department didn’t have someone teaching post-colonial studies or a psychology department didn’t teach behaviorism, they’d say, ‘Wow, we need to fix that.’”


Critical thinking

According to many heterodox economists, in order to encourage students to think critically, it is necessary to offer them a variety of perspectives and theoretical frameworks.

“Students need to be taught that whenever they’re looking at the world, in any discipline, they’re looking through a particular pair of glasses,” said Steve Cohn, a professor economics at Knox College. “They’re generalizing and making assumptions. The danger is when you don’t realize what assumptions you’re making.”

“Students are almost never given an opportunity to question the assumptions that are presented to them,” said Neva Goodwin of Tufts University. “They are just expected to accept them.” 

Advocates of including multiple perspectives in economics education, who sometimes call themselves “pluralists,” believe that providing students with alternate perspectives makes it easier for them to recognize the assumptions being made in each case. Most advocates for pluralism in economics education believe that neoclassical economics is useful in many contexts and does present a meaningful analysis of the economy. They do not argue that it should not be taught, but that it should be presented as one perspective among many and that students should be allowed to judge for themselves the relevance of a particular model.

Two essential elements of critical thinking, many say, are, first, being able to identify the fact that a decision to select one of many possibilities is called for, and, second, trying to arrive at that decision in the most informed way possible. While many students in economics may learn to think logically or analytically, Cohn said, they are rarely encouraged to think critically in their economics courses, because the assumptions of neoclassical economics are not presented as assumptions, but as facts. This arises from the common presentation of economics as a hard science, like physics, as opposed to a social science, like sociology.

One of the first things students learn from Mankiw’s textbook, for example, is that economics is based on the “scientific method.” While Mankiw briefly addresses the role of assumptions in economic thinking, he defends that use by comparing them explicitly to the assumptions made by physicists and biologists.

“Students are almost never given an opportunity to question the assumptions that are presented to them,” said Neva Goodwin, co-director of the Global Development and Environment Institute at Tufts University. “They are just expected to accept them.” (See box below.)

The myth of “rational economic man”

To illustrate the problem, Goodwin used the example of Homo Economicus, which assumes that the pursuit of self-interest is a fundamental part of human nature. “What about students who come in believing strongly in altruism?” she asked “Wouldn’t students want the opportunity to consider the possibility that people make choices for a lot of different reasons?”

“You are told that this is something universal, that it applies to all cultures in all of history, that this would apply to a Cro-Magnon community,” said Frederic Lee of the University of Missouri-Kansas City. “But another perspective would ask, ‘How distinctive is this to capitalism as a specific social system? How does decision making change in other kinds of systems?”

And Robert Prasch, a professor of economics at Middlebury College, added that consumer identity is also not accounted for by the concept of Rational Economic Man: “This model does not fully explain why a biker-guy wouldn’t buy a Honda motorcycle. We know it’s because he wants a Harley. So, identity affects consumption. When you strip away all the messiness of identity, you have individual agents who are taking care of themselves, and that’s probably not a description of humanity that students would recognize if they were encouraged to think about it.”

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