Teaching humans to be economists

I’m winding down after a day’s lecture preparation by dipping into Deirdre McCloskey’s

, always enjoyable. The book fell open at her essay Why Economics Should Not Be Taught In High School. This intrigued me, as I’m currently organising a conference (at the Bank of England on 7 February – details available here) on the teaching of economics, albeit at undergraduate level.

McCloskey writes:

“The trouble with teaching economics philosophically is that a 16- or a 19-year old does not have the experience of life to make the philosophy speak to her. It’s just words… Economically speaking, she hasn’t had a life. She has lived mainly in a socialist economy, namely her birth household, centrally planned by her parents, depending on loyalty rather than exit. She therefore has no concept of how markets organize production. … She does not have any economic history under her belt – no experience of the Reagan Recession or the Carter Inflation.”

She concludes that economics has to be taught tacitly to young people, in the background of other subjects.

The trouble is, undergraduate students don’t have so much experience or wisdom either. And by the time they’re graduate students, they’ve spend a quarter of a century not experiencing the world of markets and jobs. So I think I’d draw the opposite conclusion: teach economics at every age, but teach it over and over again. I think it’s a subject that benefits from iteration. I’m certainly still learning, and I do remember the Carter Inflation and the Reagan Recession.

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11 thoughts on “Teaching humans to be economists

  1. I write as a teacher of Mathematics and Economics and, I have a recollection, that you have mentioned that your son studied A level Economics.
    Though my first subject is Mathematics, I have taught lots of Economics over the past fifteen years, at A level, principally, but also to undergraduate Management students at Birkbeck.
    Two things appear to me, firstly, that students value A level Economics, as a prestigious subject but, more significantly are generally genuinely interested. I think A level teaches them alot, the basic language and concepts and encourages critical thinking. However, parts are overly technical. Either, because I am a mathematician by training or because I just don’t understand the models but I think what is called analysis at this level (aggregate demand and supply graphs models particularly) offers false precision and, I have a terrible suspicion is, in fact, bullshit.
    Secondly, the course, I teach at Birkbeck, in my view (don’t tell anyone), makes this same error; too much dodgy Mathematics which the students will neither remember or nor use. Russ Roberts at Econtalk has spoken about how Economics is a rhetorical subject and argument should be through words and not Mathematics.
    Economics is a great subject to teach (and learn), especially as a contrast to Mathematics because, not despite, it gives such a poor description of the world, There is so much scope for development and discovery. Moreoever, like Mathematics, I think anyone calling themselves educated should know a little Economics but just broad ideas and how to think skeptically.
    If they’ll give me time off, I hoping to come to the Bank of England Conference.

  2. I agree with you about the use of maths in economics – to be generous, at the early stages what it does is enforce logic, but not much more. Proper statistics is a different matter, and should be taught to everybody at school (much more useful than ‘citizenship’ etc). When speaking to school students I’ve always been struck by their enthusiasm and passion for making the world better, which is what you want to harness to analysis and empiricism at that age. But the economics curriculum tends to beat the enthusiasm out of them – hence the conference. Hope to see you there.

  3. I haven’t read that McCloskey book but I’m with her in “Knowledge and Persuasion in Economics”, in which she argues that rhetoric is needed not (as the Austrians would have it) INSTEAD of maths and empirics, but as a valuable addition to it. Rhetoric combined with modelling and experimentation is what (can) make economics a complete science.

    It’s an important distinction, also made by Krugman, because modelling and mathematical reasoning are really at the heart of economics; and without them we risk simply engaging in a politics where the silverest tongue gets its way.

    Of course the maths does need to be appropriate to the level of the student’s understanding, and I am very willing to accept that current teaching might not get this quite right.

    • I wholeheartedly agree with you & didn’t mean to sound anti-mathematics. But the powerful bits for young students are eg that national accounting identities add up, and that logical consequences flow from that. And that regressions involve a statistical model so if the specification or data depart from the model, there are consequences of that too.

    • The trouble is that I’m not convinced that the models are much good.
      It reminds me of my first year at university when I started studied Maths with Astronomy. I was over time put off the astronomy not because it used lots of maths but because it used so many assumptions – it had to, I understand. Economics takes this a degree further; too many assumptions – again it has to. The difference is that it doesn’t make much difference to most of us if astrophysical models turn out to be wrong. And you can be silver tongued with Maths and Stats too.

      I am, firstly, a Mathematician and want to encourage economists (everyone) to learn mathematics but be far more cautious about the reliability of the results.

      I agree with you Diane, Statistics is probably the most underrated subject for students entering university . Art Benjamin is far more eloquent than I can be in this TED talk http://www.ted.com/talks/arthur_benjamin_s_formula_for_changing_math_education.html

  4. I agree that teaching economics benefits from iteration.

    I remember economics from my high school time as a boring comparison between the theories of Keynes and Friedman. I believe the key to awaken students’ interest is through examples, certainly at that age. Accepting that these examples can never be complete, economics could learn from business education, which utilises a lot more fictive/ real examples (called case studies).

  5. Isn’t there another lesson–that parents & schools should encourage students to get real exposure to market concepts (eg an allowance to manage, a job)?

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