Supply for Econ 101 Hits the Floor; Could Demand Go Up?

Ashley Thorne

Anne Neal recently raised the question, “Are we preparing leaders and citizens who can understand and think critically about the current crisis, or for that matter, economics in general?” Neal pointed out that while everyone seems to have an opinion about the stimulus bill and the economic downturn, very few are economically educated. The American Council of Trustees and Alumni conducted a survey of the nation’s top 100 universities to find out. Out of 100, only one required its students to take an economics course. And according to a 2007 NCEE study, only 17 states require economics for high school graduation.

Economics ought to be integrated into the nation’s curriculum. If there was doubt, the event the events of the last year should have cured it. Like the study of history, the study of economics provides one of the keys to our civilization. Americans should be able to comprehend the basic workings of the market and the government. But as Neal puts it:

Unfortunately, the dearth of economics requirements is part of a broader sad story, the collapse of the core curriculum. On campus after campus, critical subjects like math, science, and American history have become optional. In fact, most well-known universities don’t even demand that their English majors read Shakespeare.

Some will claim that requirements are outdated and that students should be free to decide which classes they are going to take, since they are, after all, paying for them. Yet it is fundamentally misguided to view students as consumers, classes as commodities and an education as simply a collection of courses that add up to a degree.

Students are students, not customers. The purpose of the university is to teach them, not simply what they want to know, but what they ought to know. NAS joins with ACTA in urging the academy to consider providing a well-rounded core education that takes first priority over electives and courses on Harry Potter. That core should include Shakespeare, Western civilization, mathematics, science, politics, and economics. We hope that the current plummeting economy will act as the true stimulus for our colleges and universities, spurring them to restore economics to the forefront. 

This is not to say that the study of economics will necessarily arm the nation against economic folly. Few people other than professional economists study more economics than students at the Harvard School of Business. But according to HBC grad Philip Delves Broughton, The School’s alumni have an out-sized responsibility for the financial calamities of our time: 

Harvard Business School alumni include Stan O’Neal and John Thain, the last two heads of Merrill Lynch, plus Andy Hornby, former chief executive of HBOS, who graduated top of his class. And then of course, there’s George W Bush, Hank Paul-son, the former US Treasury secretary, and Christopher Cox, the former chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), a remarkable trinity who more than fulfilled the mission of their alma mater: “To educate leaders who make a difference in the world.”

It just wasn’t the difference the school had hoped for.

Perhaps there is an Aristotelian mean in the study of economics. A little more would be welcome for college undergraduates, but so much that they become, as Broughton says, Mediocre But Arrogant.

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