Teaching the Principles of Economics: A Proposal for a Multi-Paradigmatic Approach

By Knoedler, Janet T.; Underwood, Daniel A. | Journal of Economic Issues, September 2003 | Go to article overview

Teaching the Principles of Economics: A Proposal for a Multi-Paradigmatic Approach


Knoedler, Janet T., Underwood, Daniel A., Journal of Economic Issues


In recent years, many "mainstream" economic educators have expressed concern over the decline in the number of economics majors as well as overall enrollments in economics. This concern has prompted some mainstream academic economists to examine their teaching methods and the American Economics Association (AEA) to expand its Teacher Training Program. (1) In contrast, economists not exclusively enamored of the mainstream paradigm see the problem as more than the method of teaching. We argue here that continuing to teach the mainstream paradigm exclusively, while adding only new technologies and pedagogies, will not change the declines that have come to alarm the profession. We will also argue that economic educators should devote their efforts to making Principles of Economics (Principles) a true general education course by incorporating explanations of economic behavior that go beyond those of the mainstream. Students will better develop and exercise their critical thinking skills in a principles course that utilizes application of a multi-paradigmatic approach to afford them a more realistic view of the economy. After all, as Alfred Marshall said long ago, economics deals with "the ordinary business of life" and, as such, its subject matter should be directly relevant to all undergraduates who are preparing themselves to enter the economy and to understand the implications of economic events for their own lives and livelihoods. (2)

After briefly reviewing enrollment trends in economics at the undergraduate level, we summarize the conventional wisdom's interpretation and assessment as presented by the mainstream economists who have examined this problem. We go on to examine the subject matter and skill set emphasized in mainstream undergraduate economics as found in most colleges and universities. We will establish that one of the key reasons for this narrowing of undergraduate training is the growing narrowness of graduate training and the failure of the profession to act on the recommendations the AEA's Committee on Graduate Education in Economics made a decade ago. We will then consider critically the role of Principles in general education. In this framework, it will be seen that Principles is in need of a ground-up reconstruction that should be informed by the ideas of economic thinkers outside the mainstream. This, we will argue, will advance Principles' role in general education. Institutional economists are one group well positioned to offer an alternative to Principles because of its rejection of the positive-normative dichotomy and, hence, the willingness of its practitioners to consider openly and integrate multiple paradigms as explanatory vehicles of economic behavior. Failure to broaden economic principles beyond the neoclassical version that dominates university courses, we conclude, will increasingly make Principles and, therefore, economics irrelevant to a majority of college students.

Undergraduate Economics: Trends and the Conventional Wisdom

The first half of the 1990s witnessed a 30 percent decline in the number of economics majors. (3) While the number of majors has since rebounded slightly, one prominent survey taken at the end of the 1990s reported that the number of economics degrees awarded annually nevertheless remains about 20 percent below the levels of 1990. (4) What makes this decline all the more troubling is that overall college enrollments have been increasing as the long-anticipated baby boom echo comes of age.

Mainstream economists have proposed various explanations for this decline. Robert Margo and John Siegfried suggested that "self-equilibrating mechanisms induce the mean share of economics degrees to a steady state 2.2 percent of all undergraduate degrees awarded." (5) Others note the increased emphasis placed on research by both graduate and undergraduate departments and suggest that academic economists are devoting less time to their teaching. …

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