Arnold Kling  

Teaching Economics

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Greg Mankiw writes,


In my utopia, everyone would study the principles of economics in high school, just as everyone now studies American history. Understanding basic economics is essential for being an intelligent voter. I would be out of a job teaching ec 10, but sometimes job loss is a part of progress.

He is reacting to a post by my co-blogger.

I think it's not that simple. Robert Frank wrote,


Unfortunately, however, most students seem to emerge from introductory economics courses without having learned even the most important basic principles.

I agree. It's one thing to cram supply-and-demand analysis into students' short-term memory. It's quite another to get them to think like economists when they see a real-world issue.

For example, consider a bill to force Wal-Mart to provide health insurance to its workers. I am not saying that economists should teach people to oppose such a bill, but someone who really understands economics would at least consider the effect that this could have on the wages and employment opportunities that Wal-Mart offers. My guess is that most people who take high school economics, or even Ec 10 at Harvard, fail to make that connection.

I had lunch today with a friend whose daughter is planning to major in philosophy, with minors in religious studies and classics. My reaction was to say (to my friend's horror), "Sounds like she could be on the path to becoming a right-winger."

My reasoning is that those are areas of study where one learns critical thinking. Critical thinking is necessary, although not sufficient, for being able to understand the role of freedom and markets.

Also, that combination of major and minors show a willingness to grapple with ideas with little need to follow the crowd. That, too, is a necessary condition for becoming a libertarian, given that the crowd is caught up in national socialism.

I have more hope for someone who majors in philosophy than for someone who takes freshman economics.


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CATEGORIES: Economic Education



COMMENTS (18 to date)
Matt McIntosh writes:

Then you're crazy, Arnold. I would bet dollars to doughnuts that econ majors are on average further to the right than philosophy majors.

Arnold Kling writes:

Matt, you may be correct about the population of 22-year-olds with philosophy vs. economics majors. I would propose instead to compare the population of 40-year-old philosophy majors with the population of 40-year-olds who took freshman economics (but did or did not choose to major in it)

Zac writes:

Do you have any idea what they teach in philosophy departments these days?

Trust me, not every philosophy professor teaching today is Michael Huemer.

conchis writes:

I'll remain agnostic on Arnold's predictions about 40-year olds. But if the question were which of philosophy and economics would you rather see taught in high school (assuming the you could only teach one), surely the relevant data point is people who took econ 10-whatever, versus phil 10-whatever, rather than philosophy majors.

Personally, I'd bump both for a course in decision science, but maybe that's just me.

jn writes:

Given how poorly a lot of science is taught in high school, I would not place a large bet on the likelihood that enough teachers could be trained to teach economics effectively to even 10% of the high school population. Furthermore, teachers have no intuition about what the laws of physics should be, but many believe that they understand some economics. Given the politicized nature of teacher training, I wonder how many would balk at telling their students that most economists believe a high minimum wage to be detrimental to the poor or that market competition is more or less the best way to encourage economic growth?

Matt writes:

jn - maybe I am being unkind, but it sounds like you are slaying (imaginary) dragons in your post.

71% of Americans believe that the market economy is the best way for a country to organize itself; didn't you read the Financial Times article that the entire blogosphere has re-posted (or at least Marginal Revolution, Hit and Run, and Political Animal)?

Plus, no serious policy maker is proposing a "high" minimum wage (or at least what I consider high based on your comment, meaning one that would have a negative effect on employment). Perhaps you are the one who is mistaken about what economists believe about the effects of the minimum wage (short answer based on the other economists I know: conflicted).

John Thacker writes:

When I took freshman economics at Duke, I looked at the book recommendations for the different sections and signed up for the one whose graduate instruction offered Steven Landsburg's The Armchair Economist as an optional text to read. He did his best, but still some students refuse to learn to think economically. He did recommend me my intermediate microeconomics teacher, Prof. Dan Graham, who gave as part of his assignments requiring people to find articles in newspapers and examine issues in them from a economics perspective. Somewhat like Prof. Kling's "Discussion Questions" on his old posts.

T.R. Elliott writes:

Philosophy is great for critical thinking, but as a double major in physics and mathematics, I will be self-serving and say that I think the combination is about as good as you can get for critical thinking. I've been studying philosophy almost non-stop for the past 25 years but I, in the end, other than the logical positivists, you just can't nail it down. That is not a put-down of philosophy, but it is a fact.

What I find amusing is how self-important economists seem to be. They prance and dance around, such as in this post, announcing to the world how they have the insightful view. When in fact economics as a science is fundamentally flawed and has difficulty making descriptions let along predictions.

That is not to say that there isn't a lot to learn from economics, as with philosophy.

But if you want to learn critical thinking, do mathematics and philosophy. And perhaps a little operations research and systems theory. Economics, once you've passed through those fields, is just a special case.

Jason writes:

I agree with Arnold's statement, if only because I am a former philosophy major who is a libertarian. Of course, a sample size of one is pretty useless.

I used to be (pre-college) a pretty un-reformed leftist, and I'm not sure the Econ 101 would have changed my mind much. That's largely because (IMO) more time is spent frantically memorizing forumlas, theorems, etc. then actually understanding what's going on behind them. John Stuart Mill, Daniel Dennett & Adam Smith have done more in my personal case then Econ 101.

Adam writes:

I've thought for a while that a requirement for voting should be passing a test of basic economic literacy. Given the points you bring up, the questions on the test could be varied enough so that it does actually test whether people are thinking economically. Of course, whenever I bring the idea up people are shocked by the irreverence toward Democracy, so what do I know.

Barbar writes:

You've got to be kidding me. So critical thinkers (people who study philosophy and classics) are likely to become "right-wingers." Let's see -- we have reliance on vague and conflicting notions of "left" and "right" and a self-serving claim that is actually contradicted by the available evidence (for example, the famous left-wing bias in academia, that extends from the social sciences all the way through such fluffy fields as biology, chemistry, physics, and mathematics). Obviously not a lot of critical thinking went into this post -- it must have been composed by a professor of postmodern literature, right?

T.R. Elliott writes:

Barbar: You just have to get used to the fact that both Caplan and Kling write with an attitude--as far as I can gather, they've drunk from the font of eternal truth, which apparently runs in one or more economics departments (and now I guess philosophy departments in Kling's case)--and they're willing to grant dolts like me--lowly physicist and mathematician that I am--a taste of their universal awareness.

Bill writes:

I've got to agree with T.R.: Physics and math develop logical thought better than any other discipline. I think philosophy is great for learning critical thinking skills. Economics is great for, well, understanding economics. IMO, first study philosophy, then math, then physics, then economics.

Brad Hutchings writes:

T.R. and Bill... I bet that economists would have been against eugenics back in the day ;-).

Alex Tabarrok points to a review of Thomas Friedman's The World is Flat. Author Ed Leamer starts out by trying to put Friedman's metaphor in context by appealing to well understood metaphors that dominate econ thinking. An example he uses to drive the point home that metaphor is important is the phrase "his elevator doesn't stop on all floors". To his foreign students, this is a literal thing -- they think the building "he" is in is defective. American born students know that "he" is not playing with a full deck (beatiful use of metaphor to explain one, heh).

I'll take off from page 3 of Leamer's reveiw and suggest that what Arnold is saying is that over the long term, people who know to look for the relevant metaphors would have a higher tendency to eventually become favorable to free minds and free markets. Libertarian thinking is ripe with different metaphors, stories, examples. Statist thinking OTOH just seems to be a variation of "Mommy, protect me from the big bully", and "Mommy, fix my boo-boo". Please find me a counter-example. I'd love to be enlightened.

PrestoPundit writes:

I've got advanced degree credentials in Philosophy.

I can tell you that very few philosophers have any idea how to teach genuine critical thinking.

Most philosophers train students in a variety of well dug formalisms -- most of them with endless and rather well established "puzzles", i.e. conceptual intractibilities which provide endless opening for continued study and further philosophical "research."

The key think for professional advancement in philosophy is the ability to "show you are smart" using well established technical tools to address some technical problem or another. Anything non-formal or outside the box is not a good candidate for a Ph.D dissertion, or for filling the journals with publications.

"Tractability" within a conceptually pre-defined box is key to the game. This does not lead to the solving of philosophical problems, but to there perpetuation. E.g. the work of Wittgenstein is placed essentially out of bounds by the formal cum professional needs of the discipline.

Similar in a very direct way to the way in which much of Hayek's work is essentially out of bounds in the profession of economics, due to the fact that one of his central results is that the most important causal variable in economics -- entrepreneurial learning in the context of changing prices -- is beyond the formal demand of mathematical tractability and "empirical" testing, the very engines of disseration and publication production in the economics profession. Ditto most of Hayek's insights into capital theory and the business cycle.

One final thought. The work of Thomas Kuhn applies also to the study of "critical thinking" -- much of critical thinking is really straight training without much critical thought involved. What you learn are techniques, both formal and informal. Many of these techniques are best learned in practical situations -- what a good "critical thinking" class can do is give you a vocabulary for talking about what you already know, and perhaps get a bit better at it through the conscious use of this vocabulary. (On all this I highly recommend Larry Wright's textbook on critical thinking and some of his journal articles in this area.)

Brock writes:

My Philosophy prof (phil 490, the Ethics of Nietzsche) said,

1) In my opinion, Milton Friedman should be drug out in the streets and shot.

2) I don't feel sorry for those people who died (the the NSAS disaster) because NASA is a waste of money.

3) We need to Bring Marx Back!! (whist pounding his pathetic fist on the table)

And many, many, many more.

I have a notebook full of crazy stuff my profs said. And most of it came from the philosophy dept (though sociology had a strong showing too).

You want a smart, logical kid? Send them to trade school. Avoid the 100k propaganda camp at all costs.

jn writes:

Well, T.R. as someone with a physics degree myself, I don't underestimate the value of math/physics training in developing reasoning/research skills. Indeed, a large number of prominent economists have strong math/physics backgrounds. Moreover, the amount of math needed to enter the top econ programs is usually much greater than the median amount of math learned by the better than average undergrad math major. However, in my experience, bright scientists tended to be naive about politics, economics and the environment. Several suffered from the planning fallacy that "if only the right group of smart people ran everything, the world would be ok..." Moreover, because the social sciences are so imperfect, economists can (and should be) more sophisticated about the limits of standard scientific methodology than physicists who feel that subjects not up to the rigors of quantum electrodynamics are barely worth studying.

TGGP writes:

David Friedman teaches economics at a college of law, despite never having taken a credited course in either subject. His degree is in physics.

If I was going to look for right-wingers, I wouldn't go looking for them in a univertsity's philosophy department.

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