Sunday, September 7, 2014

Reforming the Economics Curriculum: Some Initial Perspectives on Fresh Start versus CORE

The first fruits of the CORE project are now available for sampling, and of course I had to taste it for myself.  This is an international initiative that, using INET (Institute for New Economic Thinking) funding, brought together 25 economists to mold a set of open-access resources that would put a new spin on undergraduate teaching.  They are collectively producing a sort-of textbook, The Economy, which is free for one and all.

So how does CORE compare to my own textbooks (here and here) that have a parallel goal?  Since only the first two chapters are up on the CORE website it’s too soon to tell, but here are my first impressions:

1. CORE wants to overcome the conventional distinction between micro- and macroeconomics.  I regard the split as mostly useful and representative of the way the profession organizes and thinks about itself.  I think it’s OK to spend one term on micro and another on macro, although I admit that there are topics in each that benefit enormously from exposure to the other.  I can see the value of CORE’s approach too.

2. CORE is “big theory”.  It’s about the vast sweep of history, the nature of economic development, the roles of competition and cooperation, participation and hierarchy, and all that.  What I’ve read so far is quite stimulating, and many students will be excited by it.  My approach is much more applied.  While I spend a bit of time contextualizing economics in a manner similar to CORE, for the most part my attention is much more on the nuts and bolts of how economics is used and abused in everyday problem-solving.  Compared to CORE, I think my texts better lend themselves to the use of case studies, research projects on specific policy questions and the use of online data sources to see how well theory matches current reality.  (I’m more of an applied economist than most of the CORE people I’m familiar with.)  The balance between social theory and practical tool-building is a difficult question, however, and there's no single right answer.

3. CORE has a message.  Or, to be more precise, it has many messages, and it is written to tell students how they should think about a variety of topics.  (I agree with most of what I have read so far, but this is not the point.)  I have gone out of my way, on the other hand, to distance my texts as much as possible from my own positions on disputed economic questions.  I am more concerned to promote critical thinking—developing the student’s ability to make analytical assessments of competing arguments, increasing her tolerance for ambiguity—than promulgating “correct” thinking.  (I do break down from time to time, especially in the macro volume when I become exasperated.  You’ll see what I mean.)  I don’t want to say that CORE is doctrinaire; certainly it is far less authoritarian in its approach than the typical textbook.  But its tone is distinctly different from mine.

4. CORE wants to redefine not only the teaching of economics but also its subject matter.  The Economy appears to leave out a lot of what traditional textbooks cover and most economists still think are important pieces of the discipline.  In effect it says, here’s what economics should look like today.  My books are, at least on the surface, far more modest.  They take the topic elements of the mainstream of the profession as given and devote themselves to reformulating how they are framed, organized and presented.  More or less the entirety of the conventional economic sequence can be found in the Fresh Start books, and this can’t be said for CORE.  On a deeper level, however, one of the main intentions behind my books is to demonstrate that you can keep the pieces the same, but reframing them and placing them in the context of more recent developments change how you view economics as a whole.  But I should also emphasize again that the books are not preachy about this, since the goal is critical thinking, not a new catechism.

5. CORE has high production values.  It looks great and finds a nice balance between narrative and pastiche.  (Most introductory textbooks are too pastiche-y for my taste; mine probably err on the side of excessive narrative.)  There are lots of elegantly executed graphics.  They obviously drew on some pretty serious talent.  I can hardly claim to be in that company.  I think my texts look OK, and they have been vetted for clarity and effectiveness by many cohorts of guinea pigs students, but you can’t help but notice that far fewer resources went into their creation.

All of these observations are provisional, since CORE has just begun unspooling.  I may come back in a week or two with a completely different assessment.  We shall see.

Also, I don’t want to convey the impression that I am arguing that my approach is “right” and CORE’s isn’t.  There isn’t a single right approach, nor even necessarily a best way of implementing any single approach.  The conventional textbook market is better served by offering instructors a choice of materials, and the movement to reset the undergraduate curriculum has a similar interest in diversity.  If anything, the need is greater because there is less clarity about the way forward.  I should add that, from the start (and we’re talking now about 2003 when I began the actual writing), I regarded my books as stepping stones on the way to new thinking about the teaching of economics and not the final word.  I’m looking forward to reading more of the CORE materials and seeing how they approach the same puzzles I had to grapple with.

ps: For those interested in acquiring an exam copy of either of my textbooks (or actually purchasing one for that matter), be advised that Springer takes about a month to ship physical copies.  If time matters, go for the e-version.

UPDATE: I'm wrong.  There are ten chapters of The Economy available for online reading (but not downloading).  I'll have to plunge into the whole thing and see if my initial impressions have to be revised.


Gordon said...

>Also, I don’t want to convey the impression that I am arguing that my approach is “right” and CORE’s isn’t.

FWIW, that didn't even occur to me until you denied it.

Myrtle Blackwood said...

I'm re-reading 'Small is Beautiful' by EF Schumacher. It was originally published in 1973. ( I think that I may have first read it in 1974 or 1975). It would serve well as an introductory text for the subject of economics.

Schumacher tears apart Nicholas Kaldor's theories of capital/output ratios and his notion that the amount of available capital is a 'given' in 'the economy'. Schumacher also makes the important observation that "advances in technology [can] eliminate workplaces at the cost of an additional input of capital without affecting the volume of output."

....the whole notion of 'unemployment' is a socially-created one. It presumes that one is 'idle' when an individual is not in paid employment. But much of the everyday provision and problem-solving in life is done outside of GDP and money measurement.