Sunday, August 12, 2007

Principles of "Principles"

In a NY Times column titled "The Dismal Science, Dismally Taught," Bob Frank relates a familiar experience:
WHEN I began teaching economics in the 1970s, I noticed that people were generally disappointed when they learned what I did for a living. When I began asking why, many said something like this: “I took Econ 101 years ago, and there were all those horrible equations and graphs.”
Frank believes that the teaching of introductory economics is fundamentally flawed:
Their unpleasant memories were apparently justified. Studies have shown that when students are tested about their knowledge of basic economic principles six months after completing an introductory economics course, they score no better, on average, than those who never took the course...

...Why aren’t introductory economics courses more effective? One possibility is that professors try to teach their students far too much. The typical course bombards students with hundreds of concepts, many of them embedded in complex equations and graphs. The mathematical formalism that has become the hallmark of economic research has yielded deep insights. But it does not seem to have helped introductory students learn basic economic principles.

As an alternative, he argues for a pedagogy focused on the repeated application of a small group of principles:

Just as a few simple sentence patterns enable small children to express an amazing variety of thoughts, a few basic principles do much of the lifting in economics. If someone focuses on only these principles and applies them repeatedly in examples drawn from familiar contexts, they can be mastered easily in a single semester.
He may be right, if one takes at face value the idea that the purpose of "Principles of Economics" is solely to impart principles of economics. What his argument seems to miss is that there is a broader purpose to an undergraduate economics course - we are not just teaching economics, we are helping our students learn how to think. This is where that much-derided "mathematical formalism" is invaluable: working with economic models - the process of making assumptions explicit in equations and deriving the implications - helps us learn to connect assumptions and conclusions and think about relationships in a careful, logical manner.

The main educational value of economics lies in the abstract reasoning and quantitative skills the students develop through practice. Other fields cultivate different abilities in their students - e.g. students of English don't merely learn about a set of books, they become more critical readers and better writers. The general point is that the value of a liberal arts education lies not in the body of knowledge students take away, but in the skills and habits of mind they develop when they are challenged.

A couple of subsidiary points:
(i) Frank's argument fits much better for introductory microeconomics than macroeconomics - the factual knowledge in "macro" about how the federal budget and monetary policy work is crucial if we care about what kind of citizens our students will be.
(ii) Though most students of economics (and indeed myself and most economists I know) sometimes lament our reliance on mathematical models, the use of mathematics is absolutely central to economics as it is practiced today. To avoid this for the sake of making it go down easier seems to risk misrepresenting what economics actually is.

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