CORE and Periphery in the Reform of Econ 101

CORE and Periphery in the Reform of Econ 101

Thanks to Greg Mankiw, I’ve seen a preview of the piece by Sam Bowles and Wendy Carlin that will be published in a forthcoming Journal of Economic Literature.  It’s apparently part of a roundtable on the teaching of introductory economics, and not surprisingly Bowles and Carlin focus on the freely downloadable CORE text produced with support from the Institute for New Economic Thinking.  The starting point of their article is the revolution in economic textbooks inaugurated by Paul Samuelson in 1948, when Keynesian analysis and policy became the centerpiece of what every introductory student was expected to know.  Today, they say, we need a new revolution, since the introductory texts are equally out of date and fail to grapple with the issues students rightly care about.

Much of the article is taken up with a detailed comparison of their text to two leading competitors, those of Mankiw and Krugman/Wells.  They use frequency of word use to contrast the relative importance of different topics and describe in a more general way the key benchmark models that structure the alternative narratives.  They make the point that major changes in economic theory, such as greater behavioral realism, the relevance of institutions and the role of game theory, are largely absent from the mainstream texts but fundamental to CORE’s.

Of course, I strongly urge everyone one of you who happens to be an economics instructor to check out CORE.  It brings together the thoughts of a number of leading economists on how to make frontier concepts accessible to novices.  It is intellectually stimulating, and the price is right.

I want to suggest one limitation of the CORE initiative, however.  It’s actually congenital: according to the Bowles/Carlin writeup, CORE was born at an NBER meeting in 2013 and evolved through a series of international workshops (sixteen on six continents) and working groups to its present state.  It is clearly the product of a group of internationally prominent economic thinkers and researchers.  It is not the product of economists who have devoted a substantial portion of their career to the study of pedagogy.CORE addresses one of the two main problems with the introductory economics course, that the intellectual substance is largely past its sell date and does not lend itself to the controversies most students will face in the years ahead.  Good!  But the other problem is that economics is typically taught in a manner that is both authoritarian and ineffective—too much indoctrination and not enough learning.  While it is important to crusade for better conceptual frameworks, it’s equally urgent to challenge doctrinaire economics instruction at the level of classroom dynamics.  In my view, while CORE can be adapted to some extent to an improved pedagogy, it is not more conducive in that respect than the mainstream texts it wants to supplant.

What’s the problem, exactly?  Overreliance on lecturing and minimal scope for critical thinking.  Let’s begin with the consecration of talk-and-chalk, or its current electronic update, as the only worthy mode of economics instruction.  Students are expected to listen attentively, take thorough notes and demonstrate their retention/comprehension on problem sets and exams.  No doubt a few of them take well to this and succeed magnificently; they’re the pool from which future economics instructors will be drawn.  Most do not.  Rather, they thrive on some form of active learning, which includes case studies, workshops and projects.  There is a vast literature that demonstrates the superiority of active learning across a range of disciplines, and economics is not an exception.

One reason lecturing has become so embedded in economics teaching is the emphasis on formal modeling, even at the introductory level.  The difference between Econ 101 and the specialized courses for advanced majors and grad students is not the share of time devoted to models but only their complexity.  CORE apparently prides itself in having more analytical diagrams relative to verbal description than either Mankiw or Krugman/Wells, but it is exactly this approach that requires instructors to spend hour after hour in lecture trying to make the models digestible for newbies.  In pointing this out, I am not damning all use of formal models—hardly.  Economics without the discipline of thinking in models is vacuous.  But there is a lot more to economic reasoning than cranking through models, and by foregrounding these aspects the need for lecturing can be reduced.  Much intuition, for instance, can be built up inductively through careful examination of cases rather than handed down as a tight construction of assumptions and proofs.  Similarly, empiricism can and should be brought in through project work—actually digging up and thinking about economic data—than just plugging numbers into toy models.  I should mention in this context that this year, finally, I managed to flip my classroom, posting lectures as streaming videos that students could view at home, while devoting class time, as much as possible, to workshops.  It was just a start, but even these baby steps were superior to the old, pre-flip approach.

The other problem, authoritarianism, is related to the first.  Models have right and wrong forms of understanding, and to the extent the class is taking up with figuring out how the models work and can be applied, thinking operates within a right/wrong framework.  True critical thinking is about limits and tradeoffs: how a model that might work in one situation would be misleading in another, or how the simplifications embedded in a model may help you see one thing but blind you to something else.  A critical thinking approach to economics has to employ fewer models and give more attention to context, assumptions and purposes.  In the real world people have to make judgment calls about what forces at work in a situation are the most consequential—which stories to bring to bear, and which ones to tuck away for another time.  It is that capacity for judgment that critical thinking activities are intended to build, and a useful text would be one that modeled the process in an open-ended way.  The conventional economics texts don’t do this, and CORE doesn’t either.

So for me, CORE bats one out of two.  That’s way ahead of zero but not yet what we need.  I hope its proponents can recognize that introductory economics has a pedagogy problem as well as a theory problem, and that their 2.0 will take strides in that direction.