The Economics Curriculum Needs Serious Reform

Economics is probably the most hated social science, for a valid reason. The way economics is introduced to curious students in high school and college is boring, disengaging, and even misleading. Many of those who study economics tend to view themselves above those who study other social professions, which can isolate them from important policy discussions. There are even studies that show that economics students tend to be more selfish than others.

So what is up with economics? Why do certain people hate it so much? And what can we do to make it more attractive for young, curious minds that may want to pursue it?

First and foremost, the introductory economics curriculum taught to students in high school and college is incredibly outdated and flat-out dull. When you open any Econ 101 book, you will find yourself flooded with boring graphs and models alongside neoclassical doctrines that are incredibly misleading, especially for newer students (textbook authors try to incorporate some Keynes, but their attempts to do so are usually limited and are often contradictory to other models taught in the book, which can further confuse students). 

Compare this to a political science or philosophy class, which are always packed with fascinating readings and discussions that actually provide a framework that helps us better understand ourselves, each other, and the world around us.

I remember when I took AP Macroeconomics in high school and found myself intrigued but unsatisfied by the end of the semester. I expected the class to provide me with a more broad understanding of how the economy actually functions rather than a series of vague economic models and graphs that will serve no real purpose to anyone besides future economists.

How do bubbles form? Is deficit spending something we should be worried about? Will there be another recession? Is socialism inefficient? Why do we have more inequality than other countries? How come poorer countries have higher minimum wages than we do?

Thankfully, many of these questions were answered by my amazing economics (and former history) teacher, who took a step away from the curriculum to answer them. But what about the millions of students that will eventually take economics and not get so lucky with their teacher or professor?

In between my high school economics class to my first economics course in college, I took my once mild fascination with economics and read a few books written by some notable economists (Stiglitz, Rodrik, etc). These books not only gave me answers to some of my most dire questions, but they also provided me with a set of tools I could use to answer future economic questions. I now knew where to look for economic data and research and was able to begin forming a firm ideological stance that I still hold to this day.

I am not suggesting that economics courses should just have students read personal books written by economists with their own biases. The last thing I want is Capitalism and Freedom by Milton Friedman being taught to any student (although textbooks pretty much do that already), but many of the books I read actually took time in analyzing economic events and policy with a depth that would captivate any student. Of course, opinions can occasionally differ across ideological lines on certain issues, but many issues such as rising inequality and inadequate health care can usually be attributed to a handful of economic and political developments. Even if there was no agreement whatsoever amongst economists on any issue, at least presenting the arguments is infinitely more engaging than just throwing models and graphs at students.

But to anyone that still has their doubts about an economics classroom that would incorporate research and debates from various economists, a quick look at the homework problems within my economic textbooks should give you a general idea of where we are at today.

Am I reading a Republican campaign ad or an Econ textbook? Guaranteeing everyone healthcare would supposedly make the economy “less efficient”, despite the fact that an unhealthy population contributes much more harm to our economy. Not to mention that tens of thousands of people die from inadequate health care each year in the USA.

Here is another one.

Positive statements are “facts” while normative ones are “opinion”. Of course, the cold hard fact is that raising the minimum wage by any amount causes unemployment, which could not be further from the truth. Even when minimum wage hikes cause unemployment, the positives still often outweigh the negatives (something the book would never make clear).

Talk about bias. I understand that economic doctrines such as “raising the minimum wage causes unemployment” or “unemployment insurance disincentives people to search for work” are not completely wrong. If we raised the minimum wage to $50 or unemployment benefits to $4000 a week tomorrow of course there would be mass unemployment! But this is not the range in which policy is seriously discussed. A large and growing body of economic research demonstrates that neoclassical models do not apply in almost any reasonable circumstance, which means that these models are, to put it lightly, misleading.

In fact, it was so misleading that 70 Harvard students stormed out of their Econ 10 class for having “an overly conservative bias”. Unfortunately, not much has changed since, but this is the energy we as students should bring if we want to change anything about the way our courses are taught to us.

Although economics still remains as one of the most popular majors, I wonder how many of those that choose to study economics actually do it out of a love for the field rather than for the hirable of a degree it carries with it. Either way, economics is a crucial tool that is essential for any citizen that wishes to engage in any serious policy discussions. By not giving young minds the proper tools and diversity of viewpoints to understand and apply economics, we tear the gentle fabric of our democracy.

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About the author

Damjan Nastic

Hello, and welcome to my blog! I'm Damjan Nastic, an economics major aspiring to encourage democratic participation amongst my fellow students through this page. I hope my page can offer a different perspective on pressing issues throughout the world.

If you have any questions, please feel free to email me at [email protected]!

Thank you.

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