Posts Tagged ‘education’


Special mention

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Mark Tansey, “Triumph Over Mastery” (1986)

Reading the current debate about how we should approach the teaching of introductory economics, it’s clear the participants actually need to go back and take Epistemology 101.

Now, I’m the first to argue we need to change how we approach Econ 101 (as readers of this blog know). It’s a key course, because it’s the only economics course most college and university students will ever take: it’s where they’re introduced to the kinds of approaches and policies academic economists work with; it’s also a space to discuss the economic dimensions of individual and social life, both historically and in the contemporary world. Given the hundreds of thousands of students who every year are exposed to economics through such a course, its content is crucial.

The course, however, is also often badly taught. That’s in part because the material is many times presented in a mind-numbing manner, as a set of ideas and facts that need to be memorized in order to pass quizzes and exams. But, even more important, it’s because many of those ideas and facts—from the effects of minimum wages to the patterns of international trade—serve to naturalize both mainstream economic theory and the economic and social system celebrated by mainstream economists. In other words, students are generally taught that the limits of debate are defined by the parameters of mainstream economics.

I know, then, I should welcome a debate about what we should teach in Econ 101—but, as it turns out, not this one. Michael R. Strain wants to keep things pretty much as they are:

An economics 101 textbook is a treasure. The information therein captures the leaps forward in intellectual history, in our understanding of society — indeed, in our understanding of daily life. . .

Look. Understanding society and the economy is tough business. Economics 101 textbooks have a large responsibility to do that right and well. Does the theory of comparative advantage presented in 101 tell you most of what you need to know to understand the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement? Nope. But that’s a ridiculous standard to hold for an intro class. Are economics 101 textbooks perfect? Of course not, and they can and should be improved. But existing 101 textbooks are one of the best tools society has to prepare young people for responsible and informed citizenship.

James Kwak, following Noah Smith, argues Econ 101 should be based on a combination of the mainstream theoretical models Strain wants to focus on (which, in Kwak’s view, provide “some incredibly useful analytical tools”) with empirical studies.

A friend and labor economist said to me that when thinking about the impact of a minimum wage, the natural starting point is the supply-and-demand diagram, because it’s so powerful—but you don’t stop there. The model is incomplete, like all models, and if you don’t realize that you will make mistakes.

Professional economists know all this, and hence many think that models need to be balanced by empirical research, even in first-year classes. Strain doesn’t buy this because “economists’ empirical studies don’t agree on many important policy issues.” I don’t understand this argument. The minimum wage may or may not increase unemployment, depending on a host of other factors. The fact that economists don’t agree reflects the messiness of the world. That’s a feature, not a bug.

Here’s the problem: both sides of the current debate (Strain as well as Kwak and Smith) treat theory and facts radically separate from one another. Thus, for them, there is one theory (separate from the facts) and one set of facts (separate from the theory).

This is where Epistemology 101 comes in. If the participants in the current debate took such a course, they’d learn that the idea of separate theories and facts forms the basis of only one theory of knowledge (which comes in two forms, rationalism and empiricism). But they’d also learn there’s an alternative theory of knowledge, according to which there are different theories and different sets of facts. Each theory has its own set of facts (and, of course, its own validity criterion). And, of course, these different theories and sets of facts interact and change over time.

From the perspective of the second theory of knowledge, then, the professors of Econ 101 would introduce students to different economic theories (neoclassical supply and demand, to be sure, but also other theories that serve as criticisms of and alternatives to neoclassical economics) and different sets of facts (including wages that are equal to the marginal productivity of labor as well as wages that are equal to the value of labor power, after which there is exploitation). And they would include the complex, discontinuous history of those theories and facts, including the debates amongst and between them.

Now, that would be an introductory economics course worthy of the name—and one that is consistent with Epistemology 101.


Over the course of the next month, millions of high-school and college students will be graduating. And, to judge by the circumstances of other young workers these days, the world that awaits them is pretty dismal.

It’s not their fault. They may be gifted and full of energy but the economic stars are aligned against them. Capitalism is failing them.


Consider high-school graduates. According to the Economic Policy Institute, the official unemployment rate is 17.9 percent (compared to an overall rate of 5 percent)—and the underemployment rate (which combines official unemployment with workers who would like a full-time job but can only find part-time work and those who are so discouraged they’ve given up even looking for work) is an extraordinary 33.7 percent.


Even college graduates, whose official unemployment rate is much lower (at 5.6 percent), face a very high underemployment rate (of 12.6 percent). That’s 1 in 8. And that doesn’t even take into consideration college graduates who are forced to have the freedom to take  jobs that don’t even require a college degree (e.g., the young college graduate working as a data-entry clerk).


And there’s the issue of wages if and when they find a job. The real hourly wages for high-school graduates—both young and overall—are no higher today (at $10.66 and $17.11, respectively) than they were at the beginning of 2000 (when they earned $10.86 and $17.01).


Again, college graduates are better off than workers with a high-school degree. But their wages, too, have been stagnant for the past decade and a half. Young college graduates today can expect to earn, on average, about $18.53 an hour today compared to $18.39 in early 2000; while all workers with a bachelor’s degree receive $31.40 an hour today, which is only slightly higher than in 2000 (when it was $29.39).

The usual argument one hears is that young people should be encouraged to go to college, after which they’ll face lower unemployment and receive higher wages.

That’s fine. I’m all in favor of increasing the chances and lowering the barriers for young people to study in the nation’s colleges and universities. But for young people, no matter how much education they’ve managed to obtain, current economic arrangements are failing them.

The members of the Class of 2016, no matter how gifted, have every right to be worried about what’s next.


An anti-austerity protest has brought 150,000 people—students, workers, and others—to the streets of London to demand David Cameron’s resignation.

The March for Health, Homes, Jobs and Education was organised by activist group the People’s Assembly. The demonstrators called for an end to austerity, and demanded that David Cameron quit over the revelation that he profited from his father’s offshore investment fund. . .

The People’s Assembly used the protest to make “Four Demands”. With regards to health, they called for an end to Government spending cuts and the alleged privatisation of the NHS. The protestors’ demand over housing included rent controls and the protection of social housing.

On jobs, they called for a universal living wage and the scrapping of the Trade Union Bill, and they also demanded an end to student tuition fees and “the marketisation of education”.


Special mention



The “drown the bunnies” scandal at Mount St. Mary’s University has opened a debate about the growing role of college and university presidents who come from outside the academy, especially the business world.*

The problem is, only one participant in the debate, Shelly Weiss Storbeck, even raised the issue of governance. As I see it, the challenge facing colleges and universities is not where their presidents come from but how the institution itself is organized and governed. Without faculty governance—or, in Storbeck’s phrasing, “shared governance”—trustees will hire presidents who govern by decree in order to create and reinforce the corporate university. Then, students will be treated as customers, as passive recipients of an increasingly costly (and debt-accumulating) education, and the members of the faculty will be treated as employees, who in a pact with the devil will be paid to teach and conduct research and stay out of the key decisions facing the institution.

A good example of the real problem is James Ramsey, president of the University of Louisville. Ramsey is an economist, not a business leader, who taught at five different universities before being hired as president in 2002. But he has presided over an escalating number of scandals that, while they’re not as dramatic as putting a Glock to the heads of underperforming students, run from hiring and protecting top administrators who embezzled or otherwise misused federal funds through refusing to submit conflict-of-interest forms and yet offering university contracts to friends to sponsoring a basketball program that supplied dancers and prostitutes to basketball players and recruits (not to mention throwing a Mexican-themed Halloween party, replete with stereotypical sombreros and mustaches).

Both Mountain St. Mary’s Simon Newman and Ramsey, like many other college and university presidents, became embroiled in such scandals not because they came from outside the academy, but because faculty governance in the new corporate university has been undermined to the point where it barely exists. Increasingly, trustees and academic administrators make the key decisions and everyone else, including the faculty, is supposed to follow along and just do their jobs as corporate employees.

The problem, in other words, is the corporate model. We know it’s an undemocratic way of organizing enterprises in any sector of the economy. And it’s certainly an undemocratic way of governing the academy, where the main goals are critical thinking and creating an environment in which students and faculty can work together to produce a high-quality education.


*According to a 2012 report from the American Council on Education, “the share of presidents whose immediate prior position was outside higher education has increased since 2006, from 13 percent to 20 percent. Much of this growth occurred in the private sector, both nonprofit and for-profit.”


There’s no doubt, after the crash of 2007-08, students—including those in middle schools—could use more economics education.

Unfortunately, they’re not getting it. They’re just being exposed to propaganda.

“What is the basic economic problem all societies face?” April Higgins asks her sixth-grade class.

Ava Watson, raises her hand: “Scarcity.”

The teacher asks for a definition and the class responds, in unison: “People have unlimited wants but limited resources.”

Not bad for a bunch of sixth-graders.

What April Higgins is engaged in is not economics education. It’s just neoclassical economics.

You see, there is no single “economic problem.” It all depends on which theory we’re looking at. According to neoclassical economists, all societies in all places and times have faced the same problem: scarcity. And, of course, private property and markets are their proposed solution.

But that’s not the economic problem as defined by Keynesians (how to analyze and use the visible hand of government to get out of less-than-full-employment equilibria) or Marxists (how is the surplus produced, appropriated, and distributed and how can exploitation be eliminated) or many other schools of thought.

The fact is, middle-school economics education (like high-school, undergraduate, and graduate economics education) is dominated by one school of thought, one approach among many, that is presented as “economics.” In the singular.

And that’s because it’s run by the Council for Economic Education and stipulated, in some instances, by government decree:

The Texas education code states that economics must be taught with an emphasis on the free market system and its benefits.

Economics education, at any level, means exposing students to and having them grapple with the assumptions and consequences of different economic theories and systems. Focusing only on one approach and system—neoclassical economic theory and capitalism—is just propaganda.