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

Original Reporting | By Mike Alberti |

According to Ruccio, it is only since World War II that students have been able to graduate with a degree in economics without being exposed to any alternate perspectives. “You used to get some of the more critical perspectives in a required political economy course, or a history of economic thought course, and there would have probably been some electives on Marxism or institutionalism” he said. “Those courses have mostly gone away.” (See box below.)

“Presenting an entirely mainstream perspective and not teaching economics as the contested discipline it is, is fundamentally dishonest,” said Geoffrey Schneider of Bucknell University.

Geoffrey Schneider, professor of economics and the director of the Teaching and Learning Center at Bucknell University, believes that economics professors have a responsibility to be straightforward with students about the limitations of every economic theory, including neoclassical economics. “Presenting an entirely mainstream perspective and not teaching economics as the contested discipline it is, is fundamentally dishonest,” he said.

But he also believes that students are missing out under this model of teaching: “Students lose the ability to look at the menu of excellent economic ideas out there and to choose the ones that you find the most meaningful. They lose the ability to analyze the real world.”

And according to Martha Starr, professor of economics at American University, if they are not exposed to alternate viewpoints and encouraged to think critically about them, students are missing the opportunity to develop a skill that will serve them, and the rest of society, later on in their lives.

“Teaching students to think critically is really a crucial input to a vibrant democracy because it opens people eyes,” she said. “It allows them to evaluate things that are going on in the economy and form a [sound] opinion about them. It teaches them to recognize the reasoning around somebody’s argument.

“Those sorts of skills are really what students carry with them out of the classroom,” she said. “They’ll have that long after they’ve forgotten what’s in the numerator and what’s in the denominator of the consumer price index.”

Part 2 of the series is available here.

An ahistorical field?

Until the 1980s, undergraduate students in economics were generally required to take a course in economic history or the history of economic thought, or both. Over the last twenty years, however, those requirements have been dropped from the curriculum in nearly all undergraduate programs, and even many graduate programs do not require them.

This ahistorical view of economics, according to David Ruccio of Notre Dame, deprives students of fundamental knowledge about the field they are studying and how it has developed. “The implication for students is that what exists now has always existed and will always exist,” he said. “It allows for the impression that there is only one perspective on economics and ignores the multiplicity of perspectives that have existed and exist today.”

Julie Nelson, chair of the economics department at the University of Massachusetts Boston, agreed. “Not having those courses removes the context from the theories and makes them seem like they’re divinely ordained,” she said. “There’s no sense that economics is created by people.”

According to Frederic Lee of the University of Missouri-Kansas City, “if you were actually teaching them about the economy, you might have to talk about the rise of capitalism and the industrial revolution,” he said. “You’d need to talk about American history and the plantation economy and the attack on workers in the 1880s and the Great Depression and the military-industrial complex and the Cold War. These are just some examples to illustrate that without the history we have no place to understand what we mean by capitalism, which is essentially what they’re studying.”


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