Posts Tagged ‘pedagogy’

The economics discipline treats education as a black box. Human capital (a term derived to symbolize human thoughts as part of the production function) is generally proxied by simple variables like educational attainment. More forward thinking scholars will use test score achievement, and the cutting edge will use cognitive ability tests. The video below, though, argues that our whole concept of education discourages “divergent thinking,” the dynamic cognition that leads to innovation and change. Watch the video in which Ken Robinson discusses this issue (it’s another great piece by RSA Animate, which illuminates his words with drawings).

I certainly agree that our narrow educational paradigm likely hinders the number of students who are culled to achieve highly in school. Many would-be geniuses are left behind, and the economy suffers, even under a narrow neoclassical view of what economic progress is. I’m trying to think about how characteristics of this educational system relates to our economic system. We certainly see a move away from the liberal arts in higher education and towards majors that fit better in a capitalist economy, like business and the sciences (the latter aren’t necessarily bad, assuming they leave room for non-formulaic thinking). I;m not sure how this looks at the lower levels- I suppose children taught to toe the line at an earlier age are more likely to take the economic and political system for granted as well. Must educational reform precede real structural change for our economy?

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Today in microeconomics, we covered the classic model of the Robinson Crusoe economy. But when it came time for the professor to tell the story, they did not even know the title of the Defoe novel from which our dear friend Robinson emerged. It was a bit embarrassing when a student had to explain that the title  is in fact the character’s name, Robinson Crusoe. Of course, many critiques have been made of this metaphor (what about Friday?); but for me, it reinforced a point made earlier that economists don’t generally read, and reminded me of a wonderful passage in an essay by Philip Mirowski that discusses exactly this issue:

This account can be found in nearly every textbook: it is the story of Robinson Crusoe. In the middle of indoctrination of the tyro into our science, we find this story, this artful narrative, of what it means to be a neoclassical rational actor. The isolated individual, alone confronting scarcity on his island with his scant endowments, deliberates as to the appropriate combination of goods to maximize his well-being, imposing order upon the primaeval chaos of Nature. As I have intimated before, economists generally don’t read, but they think they know this story cold. The English hosier in the eighteenth century and the American academic in the twentieth understand each other perfectly, describing the inherent transcendental logic of their own system as it spreads across the face of the globe.

But economists don’t generally read, and therefore they don’t generally realize that the actual Defoe novel does not underwrite their convictions to any appreciable extent. The man who wrote the following might resist being dragooned into the neoclassical cause:

“The most covetous griping miser in the world would have been cured of the vice of covetousness, if he had been in my case; for I possessed infinitely more than I knew what to do with. I had no room for desire, except it was of things which I had not, and they were but trifles… I learned to look more on the bright side of my condition and less upon the dark side and to consider what I enjoyed rather than what I wanted; and this gave me sometime such secret comforts that I cannot express them; and which I take notice of here, to put those discontented people in mind of it who cannot enjoy comfortably what God has given them because they see and covet something He has not given them.” (Defoe, 1941, pp. 126-7)


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I posted with great outrage in June about a study done using a survey of economic questions, which the authors used to correlated economic “unenlightenment” with other characteristics. The study, by Daniel Klein and Zeljka Buturovic, was published in Econ Journal Watch, of which Klein is chief editor. Yesterday, Klein published David Ruccio’s essay in response to their study (Ruccio had beaten me to the punch by a whole month with his original post on the matter). As usual, Ruccio gets to the heart of the matter:

My point, rather, is that there are different economic representations—among academic economists and everyday economists, inside academic economics as well as academic disciplines other than economics and outside the academy. They literally use different economic discourses, through which they view such issues as rent control and minimum wages, and of course come up with different answers…

Our general point is that a particular group of academic economists—call them neoclassical or neoliberal or classical liberal—do not hold a monopoly on the production and dissemination of economic knowledges. Economic issues and themes are thought about and discussed by many people other than academic neoclassical economists—within the discipline of economics, elsewhere in the academy, and throughout society…

Buturovic and Klein already know what an enlightened economics is—that which instills “classical liberal thinking”—and everything else contributes to unenlightenment. Economics education, for them, is not for teaching critical thinking about economic issues, exposing students to a variety of theories, or examining the changing vicissitudes of theories and methods across the history of economic thought. No, it’s to instill what they consider to be the correct ideas, the “enlightened” responses to contemporary policy questions.
This is indoctrination, which in a capitalist democracy is not a particularly enlightened position.

Apparently David Ruccio is the one watching the watchers. Let’s hope some folks read this and realize that discourse is a valuable practice when it comes to economic issues. Kudos also to Klein for publishing Ruccio’s response after their polite discussion in the comments on Ruccio’s blog.

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No room for reading

I was talking to some English PhD students today, and when the conversation turned to economics they were dismayed to learn that no one in “top” economics departments ever read Marx, much less understood any of his theories. Then I was caught off-guard when I was asked, “so what thinkers do most students in economics programs read?” The student just assumed that we must read someone. But as far as I can tell, and the answer I gave, was “none.” The training of economists in the “top” programs does not entail any reading of books.

This should not be news to anyone familiar with the current state of mainstream economics, which has become a branch of mathematics. But the English PhD students’ surprised reactions to that reality reminded me of how incredibly bizarre this current situation is. Neoclassical economists are trying to completely divorce economic theory from all ethics, philosophy, literary theory, history,  social theory, political theory, etc. But of course that is impossible, and even economists are using certainly philosophical and ethical assumptions, and their theories are historically and socially contingent. For example, we do use some form of utilitarianism, although anyone who actually bothers to read any Jeremy Bentham knows that he would be appalled at the distortion of the ideas attributed to him today.

What is scary to me is that these students of economics, who are trained not to read about anything but mathematics, are the ones who go in to government, business, policy research, and have the authority to shape policies and influence debates. No wonder our economy is in such a mess. I think requiring students of economics to read some books during their training would go a long way. Certainly, they used to. But now, the pressure to take more courses in mathematics, modeling, and statistics has relegated reading to an optional hobby for those students in graduate economics programs and finally earned the discipline the title of “dismal science.”

Update: See the thoughtful response by Maxine Udall.

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A friend emails our old econ listserv:

I recently found out that I am going to be teaching a high school economics course this coming year. It is only a one semester course (we meet everday for approx. 45 min) and I am suppose to follow the Texas State Standards. In Texas, the course is officially called “Economics with an Emphasis on the Free Enterprise System and Its Benefits” (Yep, that is really the title…)
My hope, however, is to provide a more well-rounded view of Economics. Yet as I sit here and plan for the year, I am have trouble determining what that would look like exactly and what resources would be appropriate for high school students. (Not sure if they are ready for Marx’s Capital just yet).

Some helpful suggestions have arisen:

THE most important lesson you can teach students is that any economic theory (whether mainstream or non-mainstream) represents a different story about the economy – what it is, how it works, etc.  Neoclassical economics has its own story, as does Marxian economics (and post-Keynesian economics…

I used a lot of cartoons and videos (esp. from The Onion) to broach controversial topics (globalization, outsourcing, structural adjustment, development, etc.)…

Here’s where my friend needs some help (he’s already planning on using The Economic Conversation as a resource):

 The one thing I could really use help on is finding articles, blogs, political cartoons or excerpts from classic texts by the major authors throughout the history of economics.

The lesson plan, so far:

Anyways, the rough plan right now as I try to meet the state standards by teaching the neoclassical curriculum and by incorporating some alternative approaches.
Unit 1 – Intro to Economics: This is where I hope to make the case for why students should be interested in Economics. The plan right now is to just hit the ground running and present the “Free Enterprise System” as one of many stories that can be told about the economy. We will analyze and critique basic assumptions, economic goals of a society, etc.
Unit 2 – Overview of Micro (Supply and Demand and all that good stuff)
Unit 3 – Overview of Macro
Unit 4 – Application of Economics to the Real World and Alternatives to Capitalism: After developing a more in-depth understanding of Capitalism, we will use this last unit to critique the assumptions of Capitalism and to again consider potential alternatives, and imbed these considerations in a real-world context

Can we crowd-source a HS Econ syllabus? I’d like to find out! Any helpful suggestions in the comments/reposting of this would be appreciated.

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NYT has a story about a new study on US higher education that may explain its dramatic cost increases in recent decades. It’s the amenities, stupid.

Tuition, on average, rose more rapidly over the decade at public institutions than it did at private ones. Average tuition rose 45 percent at public research universities and 36 percent at community colleges from 1998 to 2008, compared with about 21 percent at private research universities.

But the trend toward increased spending on nonacademic areas prevailed across the higher education spectrum, with public and private, elite and community colleges increasing expenditures more for student services than for instruction, the report said.

The student services category can include spending on career counseling and financial aid offices, but also on intramural athletics and student centers.

“This is the country-clubization of the American university,” said Richard Vedder, a professor at Ohio University who studies the economics of higher education. “A lot of it is for great athletic centers and spectacular student union buildings. In the zeal to get students, they are going after them on the basis of recreational amenities.”

On average, spending on instruction increased 22 percent over the decade at private research universities, about the same as tuition, but 36 percent for student services and 36 percent for institutional support, a category that includes general administration, legal services and public relations, the study said.

At public research universities, spending for student services rose 20 percent over the decade, compared with 10 percent for instruction.

Universities say that funding the liberal arts is a continuing challenge. The idea is that prospective US students are too stupid to realize the value of a variety of majors to choose from, but will flock to the place with the nicest swimming pool. There’s plenty of money to go around in higher ed, but because universities are becoming corporatized, they’re marketing themselves in perverse ways and thus their social value.

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The New York Times describes classes around the country, at universities such as Cornell, Columbia, and Vassar, that are probing the economic crisis. The approaches are diverse:

Steven Fraser, a professor of American studies at Columbia University, has taught the cultural history of Wall Street for years, usually bringing his students up to the 1990s. But this fall, with thefinancial crisis providing an irresistible new coda to the course, he extended the timeline to include the drama, intrigue and pain of the past two years…

“The class is struck by the similarities between today and the darker periods of Wall Street’s past, for example in the Gilded Age” …

Sidney Plotkin, a professor of political science at Vassar College, has taught “Power and Public Policy” in one iteration or another for more than 30 years. But last month he began a new section of the course by exploring the housing bubble and Bernard L. Madoff, consumer borrowing and federal bailouts — and shining a Marxist light on the whole morass.

“Marx is the uninvited guest in the discussion,” Dr. Plotkin told the group of undergraduates assembled in Rockefeller Hall. “By looking at the financial crisis through the lens of a Marxist analysis, we begin to see how the American debate about power is shaped by Marxism.”

As for the students?

For students, taking a class that probes the gyrations of the economy — even through the prism of Marx — forces them to keep up with current events…

Although students may be energized by the relevance and immediacy of the subject, Dr. Plotkin detects a growing cynicism as well.

Meanwhile, ND is deciding behind closed doors to evict Marx, Minksy, and any other non-mainstream economics from the classroom. Thus, a generation of students will miss out on alternative perspectives and for those who might pursue economics as their own career, will be pigeon-holed into the mainstream- truly a liberal arts approach.

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Closing Time at ND

Via David Ruccio, it appears that the decision to close ECOP will now be handed to the Academic Council. The request is to close the department after the 2010 spring semester. This announcement, apparently made earlier this week, signifies that the dean has chosen to ignore over 1,000 of you who disagreed. That he would make this request without granting the students’ request for an open forum about the implications of this decision is somewhat galling, but not particularly surprising. Despite the lip service that Dean John McGreevy has paid to pluralism and openness in education (to my face, twice, in fact), he’s attempting to make this process as quiet as possible. Although it’s hard to see a happy ending to all of this, we can at least hope that Academic Council exercises good sense. Again, I’m not holding my breath. Sad news.

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I know next to nothing about the history that led up to the fall of the Berlin Wall, and that seems to be on everyone’s minds these last couple days with the 20th anniversary. Many on the more radical left seem to be approaching the event with a great deal of caution. I don’t know if I’m a member of the radical left, but I’d at least like to advance the case that today’s retrospectives bear an intellectual and pedagogical relevance.

Before we get into that, I think it can be established that counterarguments of the left generally seem to fall along the lines of, “socially and politically, people are more free, but economically, they are poorer than before.” Sean has some nice postings at Cultural Perspectives. He quotes an NYT op-ed by Slavoj Zizek:

When people protested Communist regimes in Eastern Europe, the large majority of them did not ask for capitalism. They wanted the freedom to live their lives outside state control, to come together and talk as they pleased; they wanted a life of simplicity and sincerity, liberated from the primitive ideological indoctrination and the prevailing cynical hypocrisy…people aspired to something that can most appropriately be designated as “Socialism with a human face.” Perhaps this attitude deserves a second chance.

Here’s another perspective from someone who was the teenage daughter of left intellectuals during the Fall:

To this day, my parents are convinced that the Reagan-Thatcher variety of free-market capitalism, which they believe led to growing income inequality and today’s financial crisis, flourished because of the absence of an alternative. The term reunification grated with them. They felt that West simply swallowed East and in the process discarded 40 years of mostly bad but some good policies.

Mainstream thought tends to see the fall of the Wall as the final condemnation of an economic and political system that curtailed freedom and ensured destitution. This view motivated Fukuyama’s “End of History” narrative. The repeated crises of capitalism, however, have caused even him to rethink this determinist stance.

I believe it is intellectually shaky to hold on to the Fukuyama view of the Berlin Wall twenty years later. The fall was a great triumph for democracy, but its economic consequences are as dubious as ever. An honest approach must admit that capitalism’s merits should at least be questioned, both for the former USSR, and for contemporary economies.

And speaking of questioning, a marginalized (at least in the U.S.) group of scholars met in Amherst, MA this week at New Marxian Times, a conference hosted by the journal Rethinking Marxism. Some might argue that such a conference could only lead to a ham-handed, groupthink/nostalgia-induced delusion about what the Soviet regime could have been. However, as Ruccio notes, these conferences are attracting a new generation of radical thinkers. Hopefully, Marxism can continue to attract enough people who at least attempt to think about it clearly so that it is no longer seen as anti-Catholic, anti-freedom, anti-human nature, and malevolent ideology.

I hope I’m not building up a straw man here, but most who criticize Marxism on its face have not spent much time thinking about it, much less rethinking it. However, just as during a time of crisis we are called to rethink Wealth of Nations, The General Theory, and Capitalism and Freedom, we would be remiss not to rethink Capital. Anyone who deems this exercise unnecessary for economics students is being willfully ignorant. Demarginalizing the denizens, present and future, of conferences like RM, is necessary to ensure honest discourse about the future shape of the global economy.


A postscript for those who find anything other than neoclassical/Keynesian economics useless: I learned the mainstream stuff even better by learning the critiques. And I haven’t been brainwashed by either. Defensiveness does not stimulate learning. [end rant]

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