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If Marooned on a Desert Island With a Pile of Economics Books …

Summary:
Pretty much every economics major confronts a very similar set of required classes: intro micro, intro macro, intermediate micro, intermediate macro, and econometrics. Some places combine the intro courses, or add a required calculus course, or sometimes a course in accounting. Then econ majors get a few electives and a senior project. When I Iook at those requirements, I find myself thinking that a lot of students come to economics expecting to interact with big policy questions of the day, but until they have survived this gauntlet of required courses, they often don’t get much chance to do so. This mismatch between what incoming students are hoping and expecting and the requirements of the econ major reminds me of great comment at the start of an edited volume in political

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Pretty much every economics major confronts a very similar set of required classes: intro micro, intro macro, intermediate micro, intermediate macro, and econometrics. Some places combine the intro courses, or add a required calculus course, or sometimes a course in accounting. Then econ majors get a few electives and a senior project. When I Iook at those requirements, I find myself thinking that a lot of students come to economics expecting to interact with big policy questions of the day, but until they have survived this gauntlet of required courses, they often don’t get much chance to do so.

This mismatch between what incoming students are hoping and expecting and the requirements of the econ major reminds me of great comment at the start of an edited volume in political science. The topic of the book doesn’t matter for my point, but for the record, the book is Natural right and political right : essays in honor of Harry V. Jaffa, edited by Schramm, Peter W. Schramm and Thomas B. Silver, a compilation of essays published in 1984 as a festschrift for Jaffa’s 65th birthday. Schramm and Silver begin their introduction to the book this way:

Imagine yourself marooned on a desert island with only ten books to read, but in this case books not of your own choosing. Suppose them all to be books written by behavioral political scientists during the last 20 years. Question: Do you think that you would die first of boredom, or of self-inflicted wounds?

This was the situation of many students of undergraduate political science in the 1960’s … Except that we didn’t realize that we were living on a desert island. And although we had been intellectually starved to death, we never realized that we were dead. … As young political scientists, we had had drilled into us the central tenet of positivism: the distinction between facts and values … Qua political scientists, we were islands unto ourselves in the midst of the ferocious and bloody political controversies of the sixties, cut off from the citizen’s perspective on political questions.

Of course, I apply these sentiments to economics. For many undergraduate students with broad interests in the economy and public policy, if surrounded by the required curriculum for economics majors, would they die first of boredom or self-inflicted wounds? Are too many undergrad econ majors (or potential majors who headed somewhere else) being intellectually starved to death, cut off from the citizen’s perspective?

Along similar lines, I think of the famous line from the movie Casablanca, with Humphrey Bogart in the role of Rick Blaine and Claude Raines as Captain Renault.

Captain Renault: And what in heaven’s name brought you to Casablanca?

Rick Blaine quote: My health. I came to Casablanca for the waters.

Captain Renault: The waters? What waters? We’re in the desert.

Rick Blaine: I was misinformed.

One can imagine a parallel exchange between a distraught college student and an adviser:

Adviser: And why in heaven’s name are you majoring in economics?

Student: My intellectual interests and passions. I came to economics to study real-world problems, ranging from poverty and inequality to environmental protection, antitrust, and provision of health care and education.

Advisor: Real-world problem? What real-world problems? Your courseload for the next wo years is introductory micro, introductory macro, intermediate micro, intermediate macro, econometrics, and a mandatory accounting course.

Student: I was misinformed.

Given who I am and what I do, I’m naturally a huge fan of teaching economic theory and terminology. But my sense is that a lot of undergraduate economics majors end up completing the major with a relatively narrow range of knowledge about real-world topics and policies, because there just wasn’t enough time for many electives. So you have econ majors who don’t know much about taxation or Social Security, because they didn’t have room in the schedule for a public finance course; or who don’t know much about environmental economics, or international trade, or antitrust, or health economics, or inequality, or poverty, or infrastructure, and so on and so on–because there was only room in their schedule for a few electives. Of course, graduate students and researchers need to specialize. But the undergraduate curriculum in economics could often be better-connected to the observable economy around us.

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