One prominent academic I know dislikes scientific exhibitions in museums (such as ScienceWorks in Melbourne) on the grounds that it makes 'science' seem too easy. The same academic dislikes the fact that I take my environmental economics students on fieldtrips to look at specific environmental problems. He thinks it is all a bit 'down-market'. He prefers Lagrangians to faeces in a pond or to birds nesting on remnant scraps of native vegetation.
These thoughts occur to me because I increasingly notice a trend among teachers of economics and finance in Australian universities towards what I would call educational sadism. It is the idea of deemphasising fact and institutions, accelerating the presentation of material so that the latest theory is used as exposition and generally making academic work as difficult and abstract as possible so that students have to jump really high intellectual hurdles to pass final exams. The secondary motivation these sadists come up with when pressed is that (i) education is a screening device designed to separate out an elite and (ii) that ultra-demanding quantitative courses that include huge volumes of material and vast numbers of concepts are necessary to provide intellectual fodder for doctoral programs. Doctoral graduates, in the main, re-enter academic life and become part of a new generation of educational sadists.
Indeed these new graduates often turn out to be worse than their teachers since they remember most clearly the most recent material they have learned and forget earlier motivational material. Hence they press advanced theory onto neophyte students and skip the motivational material on the grounds that the former is obvious to any ‘fool’ and can easily be omitted. Thus you can teach students about poverty by showing them a Lorenz curve or explain demand theory by solving an optimisation problem with Lagrange multipliers. You can teach students how firms finance themselves by means of counterexamples to the Modigliani-Miller theorem and so on. And if, as an older academic, you question any of this you are given a snappy impatient look that has a ‘take him off to the knackers yard’ feeling to it.
The difficulty with educational sadism is that it leaves out the most important component of a university education – namely learning. Don’t we all want students to understand what they are on about – not just to be able evaluate them? This amounts to asserting that education should impart human capital. It should not just be a screening device.
My view is that a lot of economics graduates from major Australian universities often do not understand much economics. Graduate level theses are often plodding applications of quantitative technique that show very little economics understanding. Graduate students operate often using only very restricted areas of their brain and are a rather frightened about encountering reality and indeed in considering applications of theory. Somehow we have sidelined the issue of thinking. Indeed understanding much about anything these days in a graduate thesis is problematic because understanding typically does not come into it. The result is a cut-and-dried world of lobotomised intelligence involving Lagrangians and Hamiltonians often with very little attempt to understand anything. Markets and market processes are often supressed.
Students who have spent 5 or 6 years studying economics are fearful of an elementary supply and demand argument but have no difficulty at all with a mechanical co-integration argument or an elaborate introspection using game theory. Time series econometrics and game theory have been among the destructive forces in modern economics. Applications of time series analysis in finance have the further distinction of being some of the most boring and thoughtless material you are ever likely to encounter in a university. They neither provide insight or illustrate intelligence.
Am I guilty of teaching sins myself? You bet I am – or at least I was. But I am a reformed character and I do try these days to think about my audience’s capabilities and my main desire is to instil learning. I am also primarily interested in the world – in the meat – not in models per se but in models designed to help us understand the world. My interest is the world. I like models that illuminate things and despise those models that don’t illuminate anything other than narrow, technical prowess.
For my sins - and my loud-mouthed claims on teaching - I have been put in charge of a first year microeconomics unit at my university for 2008 – a challenging assignment. It has made me think hard about what I think students should get from a first unit in microeconomics. I have examined a number of standard textbooks – they are all pretty much clones of the early text by Paul Samuelson - but am stunned with obvious sillyness in more modern approaches.
One of the texts has Powerpoint slides conveniently delivered by the book’s publishers and treats the theory of firm costs involving twenty new concepts in a one hour class with the really critical idea of marginal cost submerged in their somewhere. It is impossible for students to effectively internalise this amount of material in one hour.
I want a less cluttered introduction to microeconomics and will look for one.
The sickness I see in Australian economics instruction is something I will comment on in my blog over the coming months. I think things have gone right off track but I am prepared to listen to contrarty claims and to publish such as posts if there is interest.
One former Department chairman recently told me his honours students are told to pick a ‘paper’ and work on it for their honours dissertation. Why not ‘pick a problem?’ The same department rejected someone I would regard as the best young economics prospect in Australia on the grounds that he was too ‘policy-oriented’. The ideal it seems in these morgue-like departments is dry, uninteresting rubbish.
Our major local economics journal the Economic Record has lost its credibility and rejects anything that has policy relevance almost as a matter of principle. I recently did a literature research on the ‘Record in the 1950s and was stunned with the high quality and interest of the work in these early years. When I remarked on this to one of Australia’s most eminent economists he gave me an embarrassed look and said ’yes it was more interesting then’. And indeed it was. What has gone wrong?
Economics is an exciting discipline. I still believe that, despite my complaints where are attacks at the margin, there is no finer undergraduate university course a student can undertake. Theory, institutional understanding, history, politics, maths and statistics you get it all to at least some degree. A good economics courses should develop in a student the capacity to gaze at the world and to understand. This does involve theoretical understanding but it also involves knowledge of the world and institutions.
While I admire economics as a field that does not mean everything is fine about teaching it or about current research directions. Nor do the good aspects deny me the right to exercise a grizzle at current directions that I particularly dislike in economics teaching. Over the coming months I’ll try to offer some more constructive suggestions to improve things.