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September 01, 2005

Intro to Econ

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Economist Robert Frank catches up with what seemed obvious to Friedrich and me over three decades ago: Intro-to-econ classes stink. Some excerpts from Frank's piece:

According to one recent study, the ability [of people who had just completed an intro-to-econ course] to answer simple economic questions several months after leaving the course is not measurably different from that of people who never took a principles course ...

What explains such abysmal performance? One problem is the encyclopedic range typical of introductory courses. As the Nobel laureate George J. Stigler wrote more than 40 years ago, "The brief exposure to each of a vast array of techniques and problems leaves the student no basic economic logic with which to analyze the economic questions he will face as a citizen."

Another problem is that the introductory course is increasingly tailored not for the majority of students for whom it will be their only economics course, but for the negligible fraction who will go on to become professional economists. Such courses focus on the mathematical models that have become the cornerstone of modern economic theory. These models prove daunting for many students and leave them little time and energy to focus on how basic economic principles help explain everyday behavior.

I'm ashamed to admit how long it took me to wake up to a similar fact in an arty field: The training you receive as an English major is of use only if you plan to become an English professor ...



posted by Michael at September 1, 2005



Don't know how old you are, Michael, but I got a degree in English when the classics were still taught, and not from a Marxist perspective.

I really learned how to read and write, gained a very basic insight into human nature and history, and learned how to be a pliable and adaptable person.

Even though I work in the multimedia field, I still use those skills. Writing a script or a project plan is the place to start in every multimedia project.

I thought I wanted to be an English professor, until I tried it out. Awful! But, the literacy and analytical skills, along with the ability to see human social history in perspective... these are valuable skills.

Of course, later on I went back to school to learn technical skills.

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on September 1, 2005 3:58 PM

You went to a much better school than I did, then. I liked a few of my teachers, and got a lot out of the reading I did. But what's all that writing-term-papers baloney about? Footnoting, doing "literary criticism," etc ... It can be a fun game, I suppose. But does it serve any actual purpose? At least the way it was done where I was in school ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 1, 2005 9:28 PM

I went to a high school (in the early 90s, in a mid-sized Midwetern city, for reference) that offered only a couple of AP-level courses. I was pleased, then, when I saw that AP Economics was available. It turns out that the "AP" stood not for "Advanced Placement," but for "Applied."

Not that a real AP course would've been worth my time. I took five econ courses in college, but didn't really learn anything worthwhile about the subject until I started exploring it on my own after I graduated.

Most intro classes start with the basic demand and supply curves. Me, I'd begin with Occam's Razor. Common sense before theory, no? Of course, I'm not tenured.

Posted by: Nick on September 3, 2005 8:15 PM

I assume Stigler was talking about undergrad economics. My impression is it's not the math that's the problem. Textbook authors know that graduates of American high schools aren't good at math so they try to keep it simple. My feeling is that textbooks throw ready-made models at students without discussing in detail the premises of these models (e.g., why do we assume that people hold these preferences and not others?) and the questions they are supposed to help answer. To me, it seemed like models popping out of the air. I'd like, at least, some intellectual history behind them. Studying physics, we move pretty much along the path of its historical development, from Newton to Einstein; physics textbooks even tell us of grand fallacies physicists of the past clung to -- such as "nature does not tolerate vacuum" and the phlogiston theory -- and discuss the tests that disproved them. It would be nice to see more of that discourse in economics textbooks.

Posted by: Alexei on September 5, 2005 10:39 AM

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