Sunday, January 18, 2009

Economics as part of a liberal education

the Economic Logic blog draws attention to David Colander's new work with KimMarie McGoldrick on the economics major as part of a liberal education. Ive read the paper (linked below) and as all of Colander's work it certainly makes you think.


In general, they are pessimistic about the idea that people doing cutting edge research on a particular programme within a discipline are cut out to teach undergraduates broad principles of economics. I really would want to see some evidence on this. Another easily believable story is that succesful researchers are more motivated people and better teachers because of this. We can surely all think of examples of top researchers who give brilliant "topics" classes that cut through the main areas in a discipline in a way suitable for senior undergrads and do so in a way that introduces them to the cutting edge in the field. While I was obsessed with some of the broader historical courses as an undergrad, ultimately these "topics" courses, if well taught, have just as much place in a liberal education. Conversely we can also all remember courses taught by the best researchers in the Institution essentially resembling poor attempts to recycle research talks into a course, given by someone who clearly disliked teaching and students.

Some specific recommendations include experimentation with pedagogical methods other than the lecture method. The proposal for the development of a "teaching commons" is of interest to a lot of us here who have started to put our courses up and make them a space also for people outside the university. The MIT Open-Courseware initiative is very inspiring. At Irish level Steve Kinsella has been doing a good job on this front and I am attempting to do it this year and learning a lot as I go. Some of the other recommendations include specific undergraduate teaching training and certification on top of a research PhD. They also argue for the distinction between broad teaching questions and research questions, one that has been picked up on before by Mankiw and others on their blogs. The extent to which research active teachers should focus on the stock as opposed to the flow of knowledge when teaching senior undergrads is certainly worth debating. The recommendation on inviting experienced professionals to give talks is one that many of my colleagues follow in various ways and is definitely an interesting one.

As an endnote, I love feeding some ammunition to our friends in the fairer social sciences who dont like economics. The book below, referenced in the report, seems to have enough gems to sustain a few arguments.

Foley, Duncan. 2006. Adam’s Fallacy: A Guide to Economic Theology. Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA.

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