Friday, August 20, 2010

Reclaiming the principles course

Another academic year begins soon (in the northern hemisphere, at least) and a new wave of students will soon be exposed to their first economics principles course, likely one in microeconomics. How should such a course be handled by lecturers dissatisfied with the standard fare?
  I've just finished reading an excellent essay on that topic by Julie Nelson of Tufts University: ("The principles course", pp.57-68 in Jack Reardon, ed., The Handbook of Pluralist Economics Education, Routledge, 2009)
  Rather than a 'competing paradigms' approach, where orthodox and heterodox approaches are compared and students are invited to take sides, she suggests a 'broader questions and bigger toolbox' approach: "economics is defined so as to encompass a broad set of concerns, and methods of analysis are drawn from many different schools."
  The definition she suggests is one similar to what we discuss in Ch. 1 of The Economics Anti-Textbook. Nelson writes:
A good way to reframe the principles course is to think of economics as defined by the concern of economic provisioning, or how societies organize themselves to sustain life and enhance its quality. Such a definition is much broader than definitions of economics that focus on individual rational decision-making, markets, or GDP growth...
She adds:
Because it does not focus on individual rational choice, this approach can encompass social and economic institutions, real human psychology, and the unfolding of historical events. Because it is broader than a concern just with markets, it is inclusive of government and community activities, as well as the economic contribution of unpaid household labor. Because it points directly to questions of survival and quality of life, it invites questions about whether current patterns of wealth and income distribution, consumerist attitudes, and the use and abuse of the natural environment serve valuable ends. 
Nelson suggests labeling the core, mainstream models as the "orthodox model"  or "simple mechanical model" as a way of making it clear that "alternatives are possible" and to deflate the "implicit claim to abstract, appearing-out-of-nowhere generality" of the standard textbook approach. She also suggests
spending time discussing the assumptions of the traditional model. What is assumed about human behavior, about technology, about institutions, and the different social and economic forces acting in the world? what are some real-world phenomena that the models might plausibly explain? And, conversely, what phenomena might require different models? ... [T]he instructor need not show that traditional tools and concepts are wrong, but rather, by describing their highly restrictive assumptions, the instructor can enable students to understand the limited range of the models.
We share Nelson's conviction that the introductory (or principles) course is a critical one. It's the only one that many students will take and it's also often the one that determines which students will go on to take more economics courses. It (Nelson writes)
is the first step in socialization of the next generation of economists. Who will you inspire to advance in economics -- the student concerned about real-world economic issues and committed to trying to make the world a better place, or the student primarily attracted by the elegance of the models who has a special affinity to equation solving and curve shifting?