I entered San Francisco City College just before the birth of my son in fall 2008, and was fortunate enough to take a microeconomics class taught by Douglas Orr, who spent the first two class sessions warning students to critically challenge the models that we’d be learning. He gave an analogy:
“If you want to learn about an airplane, the cheapest way to do it is with a model airplane. Maybe you go out and get a build-n-paint F-16 from your local hobby shop. It’s a great way to get details about the appearance and dimensions of a real jet fighter. Or maybe you go out and get a little balsa-wood glider, which is a great way to get an intuition for basic aerodynamics. But every kid understands implicitly that F-16s are not built by snapping plastic chunks out of molded frames and gluing them together, just as every kid understands that you don’t go to the airport and get strapped onto a giant balsa wood trojan glidar and hurl [yourself] off a bridge.
"As you learn about mainstream economics you will be continuously urged by your textbook to apply the models you are learning to the real world, and you will be faced with constant reminders of the predictive power of these models. But the reason I’m standing here talking to you is to remind you, just as constantly, that every single morning, in offices from Wall Street to the IMF, economists are strapping entire populations to wooden planes and launching them off bridges, throwing up their hands in helpless befuddlement at the inevitable grisly results, cashing their checks, and heading out for the golf course by 2pm.”
I often visited him during office hours to turn in late work due to my son getting sick, or my hours at work overlapping with class time, and as far as I could tell he put in almost every second of his free time writing, consolidating, and refining instructional problems and examples in order to provide alternatives and context to the misleading shit in the text. It appeared to take monumental effort to do this while keeping it digestible enough that us community-college simpletons could still internalize the core concepts of economics. That he did it, year in and year out, and is still pulling it off, is amazing. Hopefully these texts and others like them will enable more of those economics professors like him, who are genuinely concerned with cultivating genuinely critical economic reasoning in future economists, to effectively revitalize the discipline.
Professor Douglas V. Orr, City College of San Francisco
Professor Orr's cautionary story about the dangers of taking a model too literally is a brilliant way to start a course. I envy his students!