Thursday, January 15, 2009

The economics major in a liberal education

David Colander has produced over the years an impressive series of papers (and books) discussing the economics profession and in particular the education of economists. In his latest report, with KimMarie McGoldrick, he assesses how the economics major fits within a liberal education, with a special emphasis on liberal arts colleges.

For undergraduate studies in the US, having an economics major does not mean that you are an economist. Typically, out of four years of study, little more than a year has actually been devoted to economics. This contrasts with most programs abroad where students concentrate on their major from the get-go. This is a reflection of different attitudes towards education, the US prefering a flexible, general education and, say, Europe favoring a specialized, but more rigid schooling.

Quite obviously, it then becomes difficult to claim that US economics undergraduates have reached their potential. There was simply not enough time to get them there. This is why graduate studies are nowadays essential to become a professional economist. But Colander and McGoldrick do not call for more depth in the major, rather for more breadth. Their point is that a well-rounded undergraduate education should not focus on research questions, but rather teaching questions. The latter are like "is capitalism good?", "should we accept consumer sovereignty?", or "what size should government have?" Faculty are too focussed on their research to address such questions.

I have no problem with addressing these questions in class, but I do not because there is too little time to address them. As Colander and McGoldrick correctly assess, an economics major will, by graduation, have spent less than a third of 1% of his time studying economics. You have barely touched the basics with so little time. I would prefer that high schools did a better coverage of general education so that colleges do not need to spend that much time on it. General education is important, but it should be concentrated in high school. There is no reason only college students should benefit from it.


Anonymous said...

I certainly value a broad perspective in education, but I agree with you that college education is spending too much time with material that should have been covered in high school. Luckily, AP (advnced placement) courses motivate students to take the right courses in hih school, but this is limited to the best.

I think you hghlighted on your blog earlier a more fundamental problem: many students should simply not go to college. Once you take those out of the equation, much less general education would be required in college, more time can be spent on the major and the kind of classes that Colander and McGoldrick advocate can be taught.

Anonymous said...

I think a lot of students are taking Economics as a proxy for business, at least in coleges that do not have a business school. They have absolutely no intention to become economists. They want an MBA. Giving those students a broader perspective on things can only be helpful.

That said, they are still waisting their time in college. Colleges should be able to offer the equivalent of a MBA education to undergraduates.

Economic Logician said...

Kansan: this is a very good point I should have made. My point was that the weaker students where also those likely to leave college with the most debt, sometimes without a degree and with the least capacity to reimburse the debt. And those weak students tend to get programs taylored to them.

Obviously, the better students often get into Honors programs that do actually a very good job at educating them. But these students tend to go to graduate school anyway.