Teaching economics

Good news from the land of the soulful science: a number of economics departments – including my own at the University of Manchester – are reviewing their undergraduate curriculum.

As someone who has been involved in the CORE project, which is being piloted in the UK by UCL this academic year, I naturally think it has a lot of appeal. It:

“Begins with ‘the capitalist revolution,’ introducing the student to what the economy is (rather than, as is more common, what economics is, generally depicted as simply the study of markets, or of constrained optimization). Our starting point focuses their attention on a series of pressing problems today – including economic prosperity, environmental challenges and inequality.  And it underlines the fact that the economy is embedded in its social and environmental context. Knowledge that comes from other disciplines – from history, political science, climate science, demography, and psychology – is part of the formation of an economist …. [The concepts included] passed two tests:  are they important in equipping students to address the major economic challenges faced by society today? And can the concepts be used in complementary ways, so that the student learns a unified, connected and multi-faceted way of understanding our economies, including their histories and the varieties of possible future economic systems that we might wish to consider?”

However, there are other alternatives beginning to emerge. Recently I’ve been looking at Peter Dorman’s two volumes, Microeconomics: A Fresh Start and Macroeconomics: A Fresh Start. In very many ways they are vastly better than many conventional textbooks such as Mankiw. They refer to the real world and recent events.

The micro volume, for example, starts by discussing economics in the context of intellectual history and also some of the building blocks: the psychology of decision-making, rationality and uncertainty, and the concept of equilibrium. It discusses values and well-being. It then looks at the range of economic  institutions, markets, firms and civil society as well. There is a more conventional section on demand and supply. Then a final chunky section on microeconomic challenges – financial markets, inequality, poverty, ecology. I would be very happy to teach from this.

Microeconomics: A Fresh Start (Springer Texts in Business and Economics)

I’m less well-placed to comment on the macro volume, except to say it also looks a lot better to me than the alternatives. For example, it starts with measurement of national accounts aggregates and includes institutional issues. It then proceeds by presenting different macro theories or approaches in their historical context – Keynesianism in the 60s and 70s, the turn to free marketeering, the ‘Great Moderation’ and the crisis. This is far more honest than pretending to present a settled body of knowledge.

My gripe – and it’s a big one – is that each volume is just under £50. One of the U of M students recently blogged about the price of textbooks. I don’t blame her for the complaint. No doubt there are other new textbooks on the way but I wonder if any of the publishers will opt to test the price elasticity of demand? The CORE modules are available online for free as a public good, with the effort donated by a large group of academics from around the world. Free is quite a big advantage.

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