This Steven Pearlstein column looks at intro econ classes and the program Aplia used to give tests online. Matt Yglesias gives a pretty good rundown of why Pearlstein’s argument that programs like Aplia will cut college costs. I wrote about the issue of tuition inflation earlier, and it’s a travesty it doesn’t get more attention. Undergraduates and their families are getting absolutely screwed. But that’s not I want to talk about here.
What angers me is that everyone seems to be okay with teaching economics in a way that can be tested on a timed online test. If this crisis has taught us anything it’s that the neoclassical approach to economics is at very least insufficient on its own to reflect how economies function. What we get is economics as a very easy math class. Raise a tax, then this happens. Lower barriers to entry and this graph to the left. The reason this can be tested online is exactly the same reason the tests don’t work. The answers are written so clearly in the textbooks that a small child could find them. If all you need to know is which way a graph moves under a certain series of conditions, then you can find the answer when you’re asked the question and forget it by the next one.
What intro economics should do is ask conceptual questions about how economies should operate. Let students read Smith, Marx, Galbraith, Veblen, Weber and even Hayek. No Rand. Our current classes just assume a magical capitalist world with graphs that jet around according to isolated conditions. They doesn’t reflect reality which is why we have the hilarious-but-mildly-offensively-named post-autistic economics movement. I don’t think you have to go out on a limb to say a bunch of econ or business majors who learned only this approach to economics might not ask the right questions when they’re working in finance after graduation. Look at the winners of the big economics prizes in the last year work on. Krugman is an outspoken critic of economics that isn’t centered on the people who live in the economies we stud and Emmanuel Saez works in income and wealth inequality. The national consensus on the economy is changing, it’s time we started questioning how we teach the subject to future economic leaders.

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