Economics 1, 2, 3

By Rutkoski, Rex | Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, May 3, 2014 | Go to article overview

Economics 1, 2, 3


Rutkoski, Rex, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review


Brian O'Roark doesn't have his head buried in a spreadsheet.

He knows what many people think about the subject for which he feels passion and to which he devoted his working life.

He sees the eyes rolling when he is asked his occupation.

He hears the mumbling about preferences to "rather watch paint dry" and the complaining about " the hardest class I ever had."

The professor of economics at Robert Morris University is sympathetic. And he prefers to take the high road, saying it's not so much that students aren't giving it a chance.

"It's just really hard," he acknowledges, "and when it is difficult to see where it applies to your life, the normal reaction is to give up on it, hope for a 'C' and then move on."

As a teacher, O'Roark, 39, is always looking for new ways to make economics more accessible and relatable to students.

That is why he regularly invites the likes of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, Passion Pit and Queen, Rihanna and Jay-Z, Beyonce and Kanye West, U2 and Bob Dylan into the classroom. These "guest lectures" help teach lessons about the production, distribution and consumption of goods and services and material welfare.

They are among the artists represented on a list he maintains of the best economics songs of the past 50 years. He helped compile the list with economics-professor colleagues Dirk Mateer of the University of Kentucky and Kim Holder of the University of West Georgia.

"The choice is based on what song we think has the most and best economics content for a particular year," O'Roark says. "We're looking for the song that has the best economics story to tell. In a lot of cases, it ends up reflecting a time period."

Their "Music for Econ" project, designed as a resource for songs to consider for teaching about economics, can be found at www.criticalcommons.org and is a way to distribute the songs and their interpretations in a video to whoever might find them useful.

"I like to think of it as a project that helps economics teachers by offering them a way to show students the relevance of what they are teaching, the economics themes that show up in music," O'Roark says.

He made his case at the Teaching Economics conference at Robert Morris University and at a convention of economists in Las Vegas in April. His work also is cited in two national economics textbooks.

Influential British economist Alfred Marshall famously remarked in the 1920s that "economics is a study of mankind in the ordinary business of life." Many song lyrics capture Marshall's 1920s observation perfectly, O'Roark says.

Part of the benefit of using music as a teaching tool, O'Roark says, is that it can tell a story and communicate historical and sociological trends, as well as economics meaning, to students.

The Top 50 song compilation itself was an idea spawned from a series of "best of" lists that seemed to O'Roark ubiquitous. He and his friends reasoned that if you can do a "best of" list for college towns to retire to or worst television shows ever, why not a "best of" for econ music?

"It does provide an excellent avenue to talk about the project and get some discussion going. Not everyone will agree with the list, and that's a good thing," O'Roark says. "It seems that music sticks with you more than most any other media. My kids memorize lyrics to songs so quickly. …

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