Don't know much about history, don't know much economy...

Original Reporting | By Mike Alberti |

Mar. 8, 2012  — Remapping Debate recently reported on some of the ways that critics of the current model of economics education in the United States believe that undergraduate programs can reform their introductory and intermediate level courses could offer a greater diversity of perspective, more social and historical context, and an increased focus on the real economy. These critics are equally unsparing in assessing the adequacy of advanced course offerings. There are, they say, a host of topics and perspectives not available to be studied at many economics departments. 

How to reform the curriculum

This article is part of Remapping Debate’s six-part series on the consequences of how economics is and is not taught to undergraduates in the United States. (See Parts 1, 2, 3, and 4.)

Here, we examine changes that some critics are seeking in advanced offerings and in pedagogical methods.

The series concludes in two weeks with a probing look at what those who support or administer the status quo have to say.


Geoffrey Schneider, a professor of economics at Bucknell University, said that advanced course offerings should be fertile ground for departments to focus on alternative perspectives. “That is where one hundred flowers could really bloom,” he said. “Departments have a lot of opportunity at the advanced level to have discussions with students about what classes they would be most interested in taking.”

For example, Steve Cohn, a professor of economics at Knox College, said that “real diversity would come from having upper level courses in other paradigms. You could have courses on Marxism, feminism, or institutionalism, for example, so students can get deep into the methodology of each paradigm.”

“You would think that economists of all people would understand the need to differentiate your product,” said Steve Ziliak, a professor of economics at Roosevelt University.

One roadblock: lack of breadth among faculty. “If you want to give a seminar on institutionalism, you need to have someone who has a solid knowledge of institutionalism,” said Frederic Lee, a professor of economics at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. “Most departments don’t have that, so they don’t offer the courses.”


Broadening still further

Schools that don’t have separate public policy departments should also include more public policy courses at the advanced level, said John Harvey, a professor of economics at Texas Christian University. “If economics is the only place students are getting any policy studies, then we should all be doing a better job of making those courses available,” he said. Some examples of more public policy oriented economics courses include classes in tax policy, welfare policy, public finance, health economics, and environmental economics, he said.

Additionally, Harvey said that programs should offer students variety not only in terms of the schools of thought they study, but also in terms of geography. “I think it’s very beneficial for students if they can really get a sense that there are major differences in the way that different countries have structured their economies,” he said. “We can learn a lot from looking at the differences between our economy and countries in Asia and Latin America.”

“Programs that are trying to teach in a more pluralistic way already have a number of models and frameworks to draw from,” said Julie Nelson of UMass Boston. “They don’t need to start from scratch.”

Ziliak said that it is striking that students are rarely given a chance to study the ideas and theories of individual economic thinkers at the advanced level. “The advanced courses are the times when you could offer students a seminar in Keynes or Marx or Milton Friedman,” he said. “I think a lot of students would find that interesting because you can see what ideas they were drawing from and what new insights they had. And from there you have a foundation to analyze how their theories have influenced others, and how they might have changed or become misrepresented.”

Peter Dorman, a professor of economics at Evergreen State University, said that students at the advanced level should also gain experience in finding and analyzing data, if they haven’t already. “At that level, you can start saying, ‘Okay, there’s this theory out there, which you all know, that inflation depends entirely on the money supply. So now go download some data on inflation rates and the money supply and let’s test it,’” he said.

Ziliak argues for going one step further. “Students should have to create their own data,” he said. “They need to be able to design surveys or go through the historical record to collect data on their own…Only then do you really see that facts are complicated and they can mislead you.”

Finally, several sources suggested that departments should offer more advanced courses on economic history, a category, like history of economic thought, that has largely fallen by the wayside in the last few decades. Daniel Macdonald, a graduate student in economics at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and one of the authors of the blog anti-mankiw, emphasized that students need a firm grounding in economic history so that they understand the context in which various branches of economics thought came about. “Something that students gain in those classes that they don’t get elsewhere is seeing that, first of all, all these ideas have depended on historical forces that we usually don’t think about,” he said. “And second of all, you see that there were other paths, that things could have gone a different way.”

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