The problem, dear reader, is with the received structure of the introductory course, as reflected and reinforced in the standard texts.
I teach economics, but it’s not my first love. History is. The daughter of a master storyteller and social studies teacher, I spent my summers in history-rich upstate New York listening to my father unfurl the mysteries of our beloved nation. I continued studying history at Hamilton College. But I chose to get my graduate education in economics. The reason? I am much stronger at math than at reading.
Learning economics is easy for people like me. But the basic 100-level course is a dreadful experience for a weak math student. I know. I teach economics at Wake Technical Community College, full-time.
When I first started teaching the introductory economics course here, I felt as though I was teaching calculus to students who were barely ready for pre-algebra. The students hated it. I hated it. And the evaluations of the course reflected our feelings.
Regular readers will know my skepticism about treating the college-transfer principles, or the pre-business principles, as a potted version of Samuelson's Foundations. Thus the further explanation generalizes.
For the student with math anxiety, even the concept of supply and demand is challenging. But then there is the concept of elasticity, followed by chapters on productivity, costs, and market structure. These can be a nightmare. The students get so caught up trying to figure out what equals what and solving for Q that the economic lessons are lost.
Yet students who are weak in math can and should learn economics. These students—the ones who come to my rescue as I stand helplessly before the class, scratching my head trying to figure out the A-V equipment—are clearly capable of learning, but their comparative advantage is not in math. For many of them, my introductory class is the only economics class that they will experience—if they transfer to a four-year school, my 100-level course does not transfer as an economics course. It transfers as a humanities class.
Given this, the goals of this class should be different from those of the traditional 200-level college-transfer principles class. Let me explain further.
I endorse the rest of the column. Pay particular attention to the concluding paragraphs.
Among the economic lessons I want to get across to my students is passion for the subject. What? Did she just use the words passion and economics in the same breath? Yes. I LOVE economics—the more basic the better. I want my students to get just as excited about the subject as I am.
Why is one-sixth of the world—the “first world”—different from the rest of the world? What did these countries do right that the rest of the world is not doing? This question is the focus of Adam’s Smith’s Wealth of Nations. I want to give my students the building blocks to answer this question. So, a year after I began teaching here, I tossed out the heavy principles text that I was given, adopted a small one, and narrowed the focus of my course.
In several principles-of-economics textbooks, the first chapter is devoted to the basic elements of economics such as scarcity, tradeoffs, opportunity costs, incentives, marginal thinking, etc. Most instructors spend very little time with this chapter.
I spend weeks on these concepts. These principles are at the heart of economics, which is, essentially, the study of human behavior. Economics explains how people make decisions—important ones such as where to go to college and unimportant ones such as which shampoo to buy.
That "ugh" reaction is the second most common I get when I'm on travel and the conversation turns to occupations. (The most common is a request for investment advice, or an interest rate forecast. As. If.) But let me repeat that "the grades I give are not necessarily any higher." Encouraging understanding neither implies nor is implied by dumbing down, and collegians can recognize when they're being patronized.
The result: The students are happier, and so am I. My teaching assessments are much better, although the grades I give are not necessarily any higher. No matter what the level of the student, after finishing my course, I believe each can think intelligently about basic economic issues. For example, my students understand that inflation is the likely tradeoff of a $787 billion stimulus package coupled with a $700 billion financial-sector bailout.
At the end of the course, we spend a little time on practical personal finance—not the ins and outs of investing today but the lessons that are timeless, such as discovering your comparative advantage and living beneath your means. Students find this section the most valuable part of the course.
When new acquaintances learn that I am an economics instructor, they often say something like, “Ugh! I hated that class.” Their antipathy for the course is their only memory. But not for my students. Many of them become engrossed in the subject and most of them leave the class having learned concepts that will help them make intelligent decisions for years to come. Students need an approach more like my new one if they are to understand what economics is all about.