What economics departments provide and don't provide to undergraduates

Letters to the Editor |

Feb. 15, 2012 — I stopped reading your article about U.S. universities receiving a failing grade on economics when you listed behavioral economics and imperfect information as departures from mainstream, neoclassical economics. This is factually incorrect: they are contributions to it. This misunderstanding is particularly irksome in light of the fact that it was precisely Mitt Romney who understood asymmetric information in health-care markets well enough to come up with a policy that appropriately addresses the problem.

Unfortunately, a valid and genuinely useful critique of neoclassical economics requires a deeper understanding of the topic than most critics are willing or able to gain. This is partly the fault of the critics themselves, many of whom come to the table with their opinions pre-formed. But it is also the fault of we who teach economics in U.S. universities, who do an abysmal job of explaining how economists actually think, and what our models actually say. As someone who teaches both basic microeconomic analysis, and behavioral economics at a major U.S. university, I hope that you and your readers will accept my apology for this failure.

Daniel Acland, Berkeley, California


Feb. 9, 2012 — In my day, Economics 1 was required for Government majors. When I took it in 1958/59, the course was team taught by the entire economics faculty. The course that the student protestors want was the course [we had] in my day.

We read 100 pages or so of Das Kapital …Marx was crystal clear, beautiful writing. I never saw anyone else who had ever read Das Kapital excerpts. [We] also read Heilbronner, World Philosophers.

I read the first page of this shocking description of Economics 1 in the Harvard catalogue, [which] confirmed the student complaint…

In the 1950s, [introductory economics courses] included those various theories of alternatives, not this absurd mind-closing crap course described! The academy is watering down the course. Sure we had the classical stuff (I read 100 pages or so of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, too). But, it was a year long course. [I also] read Thorsten Veblen and Joseph Shumpeter, besides the utopian socialism that Heilbronner covered.

James Chastain, Beaulieu, France


Feb. 8, 2012 — Hurray! Teaching alternative perspectives is crucial! And teaching the historical aspects of economics is essential as well. Our economic system is a social construct and there is no “natural law” that dictates it to be the market economy we see right now.

I also believe in presenting the assumptions of neoclassical economics as just that — assumptions — and then encouraging the questioning as to how realistic those assumptions really are.

Teaching the History of Economic Thought was my favorite course! Well done and congrats to the students who walked out!

Joanne King, Seattle, Washington


Feb. 8, 2012 — Bravo, and thanks! This article on economics education says everything we need to know about why the Republican presidential candidates all espouse economic plans that ignore history and inevitably lurch from one crisis to another.

 — Nick Taylor, New York, New York

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