Arnold Kling  

Revolution in Academic Affairs?

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Last week, I got together with Russ Roberts of Cafe Hayek. Yesterday, I had lunch with Alex Tabarrok of Marginal Revolution and two not-yet-blogging economists, Robin Hanson and Bryan Caplan. Several topics came up that are worth some comment.

  1. Economics journals and blogs. What can be done to raise the signal-to-noise ratio of economics journals? At one point, I suggested that blogs could provide a better filter than economics journals. That is, one could imagine bloggers combing through academic research papers and picking the most interesting ones, rather than having papers go to editors and referees of journals. I think that would be a better form of intermediation. However, there needs to be a reward system for the type of blogger who acts as a neutral referee-editor type.
  2. Economics and math. There is a longstanding debate within the profession over whether mathematics makes us better (more precision, more rigor) or worse (lose sight of what is interesting). Alex thinks that the profession has gotten better over the past 15 years at focusing on what is interesting and in emphasizing empirical work relative to theory. I'm not sure. My long experience outside of academics, in a business setting, makes me a lot less eager to teach economics using calculus and a lot more interested in conveying the guesswork and trial-and-error aspect of economic activity.
  3. Distance learning. I think that there is a potential for there to emerge a specialized organization that teaches tens of thousands of first-year economics students, as opposed to leaving it to the different departments at different colleges. I've become enamored of the possibilities for distance learning. I may be wrong on that. Robin pointed out that we've had the ability to send around films for 50 years, and distance learning has not emerged from that. He said that few students have the self-discipline needed for distance learning.

    I have a couple of counters to that. First, I think that there is something physically different about sitting close to a computer and reading/listening to one of my lectures and sitting on your couch watching a film.

    Second, I think that the issue of self-discipline can be overcome by requiring assignments to be turned in frequently. With assignments due twice a week, no student can fall behind unnoticed.

    My concern with distance learning is that you might lose the opportunities for peer teaching. That is, sometimes it is easier for a student to explain something to another student than it is for a teacher to explain it. I think that the best distance learning would include some group assignments, where four to six students who live close to one another meet to discuss and complete the assignment.

  4. First-year economic content. I am really dissatisfied with the AP economics curriculum and with first-year economics content in general. Too much emphasis on the graphical apparatus, and not enough emphasis on getting students to overcome their biases against markets, against trade with strangers, etc.

    I think that the best that can be said for the current curriculum is that it helps prepare somebody for more advanced economics courses. Of course, I think that the advanced courses are too mathematical, so I am not ready to concede that this is a plus.

    But for someone who is not going on in economics, it is easy to focus on cramming into short-term memory the ability to do tricks with supply-demand diagrams or production possibility curves or average and marginal cost curves. Instead, what I would hope to do is have students get into their long-term memory some core ideas of economics.

    For example, I was gratified that at the end of the first unit in my course, where I asked each student to write a one paragraph on what was for that student the highlight of the unit. One student wrote that she understood, but was not sure that she believed, the economic argument that low-skilled workers would be better off with more Wal-Marts than with fewer Wal-Marts.

My entrepreneurial side is intrigued by all four of these. But I think I could develop a real passion related to the latter two.

For Discussion. Relative to typical private-sector industries, is the academic community particularly resistant to change? If so, why?

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CATEGORIES: Economic Education

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COMMENTS (11 to date)
Matt M. writes:

I'd say it's somewhat more resistant to change than your average private-sector industry, mainly because academia is often a receptacle for people who don't like competition and want more security than they'd get working in industry.

Rick writes:
My long experience outside of academics, in a business setting, makes me a lot less eager to teach economics using calculus and a lot more interested in conveying the guesswork and trial-and-error aspect of economic activity.

Well, even in the field of mathematics, many (if not most) mathematicians work by trial-and-error but the subject cannot be taught in that fashion. I think the same thing applies to the field of economics. The way academic economists and economists in the private sector work is just not a feasible way of teaching the subject.

Bernard Yomtov writes:

You are probably right about the AP courses, but I think there is an inevitable conflict in introductory courses in many subjects. On the one hand, you want to give students who will be taking more classes a good foundation for advanced work. On the other you want to provide an intelligent but fairly broad overview for those who will not be going on, but want basic knowledge of the field. These goals are often incompatible.

It is my impression that the sciences often deal with this by offering two different first-year courses, a rigorous introduction and another sometimes characterized as "physics for poets," or the like.

another bob writes:

The best example of an introductory physics course I know of is Richard Feynman's "Six Easy Pieces". Certainly not physics for poets.

It acknowledges that 'what i'm about to teach you is outdated, but, bear with me'. And, simultaneously it piqued my interest to know what the actual professionals were wrestling with in their inevitable trial-and-error way.

Nick writes:

I think you are totally on the mark regarding distance learning. With the high and rising costs of higher education, there's enormous potential in distance learning, done right. One of the reasons I think efforts to date haven't busted the lights out is that they were launched during the "bubble," and way overinvested and generally wasted a lot of money, souring investors.

I think the reason films haven't filled the bill is that they're not interactive. Or to put it in economic terms, transactions costs (mailing vs. the instant communication available today) are much higher than is the case with e-learning.

Another advantage of distance learning is the pressure will be on providing instructors that are good at teaching, rather than research, it seems to me. Pretty soon someone's going to get it right.

I also think you are so right about the misplaced emphasis in traditional economics courses. I was puzzled by why my two college kids haven't found their economcis courses more enlightening, in the "Aha!" sense, but I think you put your finger on it.

Eshan writes:

The Baumol microeconomics textbook has certain concepts it highlights as "Ideas for Beyond the Final Exam," such as opportunity cost and comparative advantage. I think it's great that they get special attention, because they will remain important long after the marginal cost curves are forgotten.

James P. writes:

This thing about too much graphical analysis in the AP curricula may be something of a self fulfilling prophesy as the emphasis on mathematics in the discipline is pushed further. Somebody commented on the idea of academics preferring not to be subject to competition, I’d say this is more like “…those who can’t teach.”
Regarding distance education: more than just losing the benefits of a campus there is a massive potential for academic dishonesty.

Marcos Polanco writes:

Regarding the question of whether academia is particularly resistant to change, I would agree. Part and parcel of the academic mission is to communicate the core values of a field to the new generation. Academia is thus naturally averse to emerging models that possibly undermine the tenets of the field. Religion is similarly resistant to change, whereas opportunistic endeavors such as government and business are not.

spencer writes:

The reason business changes more is simple, competition forces them to . They do not change because they are better or smarter, they change because they are forced to. But academics are subject to much less competition so they are not forced to change.

Bill Fellers writes:

The academic community does seem resistant to change. They don't face the same level of competition that typical private-sector industries do. Eliminating tenure might help. If you're good at what you do, you don't need it.


Message boards, e-mail, conference calls, etc. are good substitutes for traditional peer teaching. I took a macro course online about a year ago. The message boards worked well for peer teaching and weekly quizzes kept the students from falling behind. I was working full time and I loved the experience.

I like the math aspects of economics, but I have a master's in physics. Econ for poets is a good idea for the non-numerate.

By the way, when are more economists going to run for polital office? I'd vote for you, Arnold. Why are there so many lawyers? What makes anyone think that a lawyer knows how to manage anything better than anyone else?

L Finney writes:

Are you recommending that economics go the way of finance and accounting? Finance has the Certified Financial Analyst (CFA), which is hugely popular as a credential. In fact, I'd recommend getting a CFA over an MBA from a weak business school. I presume the CPA is just as important in getting ahead in accounting.

So, what organization would develop a CE, Certified Economist? I just don't see the demand in it right now. Master's Degrees and PhDs are sufficient in the marketplace right now.

I would like to see an alternative education path based on the idea of certifying students instead of going to college. Then a CE might work, which would be equivalent to a Bachelor's degree. Perhaps the designations would go: Economic Analyst (=BA), Certified Economist (=MA), Master Economist (=PhD).

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