Is Economics Your Worst Nightmare? (Raising Interest Economics)

Article excerpt

Is the thought of teaching economics your worst nightmare? If it is, you are not alone. Many smart, capable teachers feel the same way. Even those who enjoy teaching government, history, and geography may find the prospect of teaching economics unwelcome. What might explain this attitude? Social studies teachers have a long list of grievances regarding the teaching of economics, including the following.

* The content of economics seems dense and abstract. It is difficult to make economics relevant to teachers, never mind students.

* Economics is sometimes thought to be politically conservative. Some social studies teachers do not wish to be associated with such thinking.

* Economics is sometimes thought to be all about money, greed, and selfishness. Many teachers don't like to see social concerns get reduced to such issues.

* Many social studies teachers have had little or no coursework in economics. Even those who have had one or two introductory courses may think they know too little to plan and teach courses of their own.

We wish to introduce this special section on teaching economics by tackling some of the toughest contentions. First, is economics inherently dense, abstract, and dry as moon dust? Not at all. Not necessarily, at least. At key moments in history, economists have often focused on the analysis of problems that were anything but remote or dry. Adam Smith, the founder of economics, had much to say in 1776 about the most pressing issues of his day-explaining, for example, how trade and the division of labor can increase a nation's prosperity. Smith also argued that, for Great Britain, the costs of maintaining the American colonies would in the end outweigh the benefits. Economist John Maynard Keynes, seeking to understand and ameliorate the widespread unemployment Great Britain experienced after World War I, argued that government deficit spending during periods of recession can foster economic growth and help bring a nation back to full employment. In subsequent years, his theory has been highly influential among policymakers in Europe and the United States.

During the Great Depression, economists in the United States played an important role in Washington, D.C., advising presidents and legislators on policy issues related to labor, agriculture, taxation, corporate monopolies, and welfare. Still more recently, and controversially, economists have been in the thick of things in the former Soviet Union, advising people about ongoing efforts to modernize the former Soviet-style economies.

Still, notwithstanding its history, economics does strike many students and social studies teachers today as remote and difficult. In one sense, this is not surprising. Economics has been around for a while. It is a mature academic discipline, one about which economists can speak in detail and at great length. Not only that: as the discipline has matured, economists have sought to be ever more precise in their work, and their search for precision has led them increasingly to the use of rigorous, abstract language, including the language of mathematical operations and models. Macroeconomics, the branch of economics that focuses on whole economic systems, and the branch about which economists tend most to disagree, has become particularly abstract. As a result, even students in Econ 101 now are apt to encounter technical analyses, expressed in compressed, quantitative terms, where they may have expected to find advice about personal finance or general discussions about wealth and poverty.

Finding a Place to Begin

You might wonder where this sketch leaves you. The answer, fortunately, is that social studies teachers trying to find their bearings in economics need not choose between the richly contextualized work of Adam Smith and John Maynard Keynes, on the one hand, or the austere work of technical specialists, on the other. Between the history of economics and its presence in cutting-edge research today, educators can find an impressive set of concepts and principles representing the best insights of the discipline that is at the same time suitable for curricular planning and day-to-day classroom teaching. …

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