Battlepanda: Why are our Intro to Econ classes failing us?


Always trying to figure things out with the minimum of bullshit and the maximum of belligerence.

Saturday, April 16, 2005

Why are our Intro to Econ classes failing us?

(Panda regulars might be noticing light blogging this weekend. This is because a whole bunch of my college friends are back in town for an alumni party. It's wonderful. I've forgotten what it was like to have a social life. But anyhow, on with the post.)

One of my friend from college, RJ, is staying with me this weekend. It didn't take long for the curious fact that I have turned into a macroeconomics nerd to come up in conversation. RJ was not impressed. In fact, he coolly let me know that he regards economics as a quackish science, somewhere in between sociology and astrology in respectability. In other words, bullshit. Of course, I couldn't let that pass unchallanged. So we verbally tussled for about twenty minutes, bouncing various arguments and analogies back and forth. If I may say so myself, I think I countered his dismissals reasonably well. Yet by the end of the rather heated conversation, it became clear that there was no way I was going to change his mind. He started averting my gaze. We talked about them Redsox instead.

But this conversation haunted me. How is it possible for a guy like RJ to, for all intents and purposes, not believe in economics? He certainly is intelligent, and more importantly intellectually curious. He was even curious enough about economics at one point to take an intro to Econ class at college. Amherst College, which is among the best schools in this country, if I may say so myself. Yet despite the fact that he's a bright guy ready and willing to learn more about economics in one of the country's elite institutions, the class did not nurture his nascent interest. In fact, this introduction turned him against the whole subject so decisively that his has closed his mind. Yet I really shouldn't have been so surprised, I took the same class and it wasn't so very long ago when I was every bit as skeptical about the science of economics as RJ, if not quite as virulently so.

The ironic thing is, this class, Econ 11, was tailored precisely to function as a freestanding introductions to economics. About a quarter of the students who go to Amherst end up taking it. The faculty knew that for many students, this would be their first and only exposure to economics in an academic setting, and so they strived to cover the fundamentals, to give us all the tools we needed to navigate our way through economic news, and hopefully piqueing our interest enough that we will learn more on our own. How did they fail so spectacularly?

And the larger question is this: Why is economics, the intellectual discipline most closely tied to the prosperity in our society, so ignored and misunderstood? And what are the consequences of this state of being?

(Watch this space for some further rumination on these questions. Where did Econ 11 go wrong? What eventually caused me to change my mind? What can we do right in the future to encourage greater interest and understanding rather than derisiveness and dismissal?)