For most academic subjects—math, English, biology, chemistry—students
come to post-secondary courses with at least some familiarity from high
school. This is often not the case for economics, as the previous articles
attest. College-level intro courses are likely the first—and only—economics
courses that many students will take. Are these courses, then, and the
texts employed to teach them, doing the job? A survey of economics professors
provides some answers, and some ideas for change.
High School Preparation
Ten years ago, university economists William Walstad and John Soper
said economics should be "added to the list of failing subjects"
in the nation's high schools because few graduate with much knowledge
of basic economic concepts. Their report confirmed findings of a
similar study in 1970, which found that students taking high school
economics had little advantage in introductory college courses over
those who had no economics coursework in high school.
For some economics professors, this isn't all bad. A lack of
economics coursework in high school might actually be beneficial
because material doesn't have to be untaught in intro college-level
courses, they say. For good or bad, economics in high school is
often wrapped into other subject areas, like social studies, or
watered down into an overview course. Such courses are of limited
use, according to many professors interviewed for this story,
who argue there is no substitute for a principles course.
"An overview course can only take the student so far," says
Anthony Davies, a professor of economics at West Virginia University,
"and this is arguably no farther than the student could have taken
himself had he just read a good paper every morning for a semester."
But courses on economic principles are rare in high schools, and
limited mostly to elective, advanced-placement courses that attract
relatively few students.
Student preparation for college-level economics also crosses
into other curriculum areas. "A student who does not have facility
with algebra, and reading and constructing graphs [of mathematical
functions] is severely hobbled when it comes to understanding
a college-level economics lecture," says Davies.
Douglas Gale, an economics professor at New York University,
says that raising standards for high school students "would do
a lot, especially training in calculus and mathematical skills
generally." Not that students would necessarily prefer this approach,
Gale says. "There will always be students who expect a soft, liberal
arts approach to economics and they will be accommodated. But
it is a mistake to think that they are learning economics."
Davies says he would even be willing to teach math to his economics
students to help them better understand class material. "Many
of them are so petrified of mathematics, that I can't even do
Compounding the problem is a lack of economics coursework among
high school teachers, some say. Little research has been done
on this subject, but one study reported that more than half of
all high school economics teachers have six or fewer credit hours
of instruction (two classes or fewer), and only 6 percent had
majored in economics. One professor interviewed for this article
says he recently met a local high school instructor teaching a
government and economics course who had no coursework whatsoever.
But teacher training does appear to be improving, mostly for
teachers already in the classroom. The National Council on Economic
Education (NCEE) has created its own K-12 economics curriculum,
which is available to local school districts through state councils
in 48 states and 260 university-based centers.
More students are taking economics courses as well. According
to a report by Walstad, an economics professor at the University
of Nebraska, the relative equivalent of 16 percent of high school
graduates had completed a course in 1961. By 1982, that figure
had risen to 22 percent, and to 29 percent by 1987.
Viewed through the other end of the rolled-up diploma, though,
that leaves a solid majority of high school students with no formal
coursework in economics, and many will forego college and move
immediately into the workforce. According to an NCEE survey of
the state councils, only 37 states mandate that economics courses
even be offered in high school, and a mere 14 states require that
a student take at least one class that includes material on economics.
According to Sandra Dowling, vice president of development for
NCEE, economics at the high school level "is not perceived by
people as a pressing issue that [students] need to learn about."
Upon arriving in college—with or without high school coursework—what
will a college student typically find? According to some university
economists, many students will be overwhelmed. "Most of the time
[the material] is way over their heads," says Lee Van Scyoc, economics
professor at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. To compensate,
Van Scyoc says he tries to use examples "to scale down a lot of
Many first-year students enter economics courses expecting a
continuation of their high school social studies course, according
to Ross Emmett, associate professor of economics at Augustana
University College in Alberta, Canada, where economics classes
share many of the same traits as their American counterparts.
"What they usually get instead is an introduction to a scientific
discipline, with a focus on models, assumptions, methods and empirical
relevance," Emmett says. "There is nothing inherently wrong with
the 'intro to the science' approach—after all, it is almost
the same as what the students encounter in biology, chemistry
or physics. But it does set up cognitive dissonance and unfulfilled
expectations [for the students]."
Paul Heyne, textbook author and economics professor at the University
of Washington, says that too many introductory courses are designed
as if every student in the class is going to be an economics major,
and every economics major will earn a Ph.D., and every Ph.D. will
pursue an academic career. Introductory courses become "the first
step toward a Ph.D.," Heyne says, with a heavy emphasis on techniques
that leave most students "bewildered and alienated."
Many economics majors, though, end up outside academia, landing
jobs in the "regular" workforce that diverge from their training
in theory and models. Shawn Hamele, a recent graduate in economics
from the University of Minnesota, works for an executive search
firm specializing in accountants. Hamele says that on several
occasions, professors stated openly that the course would be taught
as if students were going on for master's degrees, despite the
fact that few were actually planning such a career—only one
of the seven students in one class, he says.
And those economics students are often rewarded for their perseverance,
even if they don't pursue an academic career, according to an
earlier report in The Region. Some employers prefer
economics majors because they have been trained to think critically
and quantitatively, and are able to see the "big picture." [See
The Region, December 1994.]
Still, some balance in the teaching of economics is necessary,
says Harvard economics professor Gregory Mankiw. It can be easy
for professors to fall into the trap of too much technical and
theoretical material, Mankiw says. "After all, economics professors
love economics, and often this love came quite naturally. As instructors,
we have to remind ourselves that not all our students are just
Some professors also point out that economics teachers are forced
to push against social conditioning that invariably clashes with
principles taught in intro courses. According to Gale, the rational
approach of economists in analyzing social phenomena is resisted
by students "partly because it is unfamiliar, partly because it
threatens preconceptions, and partly because the idea of learning
to think seems a rather abstract and unsatisfactory alternative
to the kind of concrete, result-oriented information they were
This can play a significant a role in students' ability to grasp—and
daresay, enjoy—the subject of economics. Economics professor
Craig Swan of the University of Minnesota says that important
core concepts in economics "are things like limited resources,
opportunity cost and diminishing marginal returns. A lot of people
don't like the message. They don't call it 'the dismal science'
Every year, Heyne teaches a week-long class in Hungary. Despite
the language barrier (his lectures are translated to students),
he says Hungarian students understand concepts of a market economy
better than his American students because the Hungarian students
live in a dysfunctional economy and society, which makes them
eager to learn about and understand how a market economy works.
Conversely, "Our economy works so well [students] do not think
about it," Heyne says, adding that some students come to intro
classes with "moral hostility" toward market transactions, believing
things like business profits are "vaguely immoral." [See Heyne's
article on this topic.]
This should not surprise people, nor waver the faith of economists.
"People looking for easy, no-cost, free-lunch solutions to a range
of problems often disagree with economists," says Swan.
The basic college textbook remains largely unchanged since Paul
Samuelson published his landmark Economics text 50
years ago. With a total of 15 editions, Economics
has sold millions of copies and is easily the biggest selling
introductory economics textbook ever written. He is widely credited
for influencing entire generations of political thought. Having
been translated into 40 different languages, according to one
source, Samuelson's impact is global.
Many are now looking for the next Samuelson to revolutionize
economic thought. Publishing houses are leading that hunt because
there's big money in finding the next Samuelson. With texts selling
at about $55 to a captive market of hundreds of thousands of students,
big money also is getting paid to professors for writing them.
By now, many are likely familiar with Gregory Mankiw's $1.4
million advance—sight unseen—from Harcourt Brace in
1994 for the recently published Principles of Economics.
At the time, it was hoped that Mankiw would revolutionize the
principles textbook, although Mankiw himself was (and is still)
more self-effacing on the impact of his book.
"Economics instructors and textbook authors help determine how
people view the world in which they live. It is hard to quantify,
but the indirect impact on policy is probably immense," Mankiw
says, but added, "It's probably a mistake to credit or blame any
one person or book for [creating a particular] intellectual climate.
Samuelson's book was important, but it reflected a prevailing
consensus in the economics profession. If my book turns out to
seem important, it will not be because it offers a distinctive
view of economics, but because it offers a clear and compelling
presentation of the current consensus among economists."
Upon publication, reviews of Principles were complimentary,
mostly for its improvement in style. For instance, reviewers pointed
out the book is only 800 pages; textbooks commonly run to 1,000
pages. Examples of current events and cultural icons like Michael
Jordan and Bill Gates have scored points with instructors and
"If it hadn't gotten so much hype," Michael McElroy, professor
of economics at North Carolina State says of Mankiw's text, "my
reaction would have been that he had done a nice job, especially
in easing off on some of the 'model for model's sake' stuff that
represents economists trying to force the world to see it just
the way they do, instead of finding more accessible metaphors
and stories that will engage noneconomists." Ultimately, though,
McElroy thinks a bigger break is needed from the standard textbook
Despite the presence of literally dozens of principles textbooks
on the market today, there is little difference among the best-selling
texts, according to Emmett of Augustana University College. "There
are few texts which depart significantly from the standard fare,"
Emmett says. Russell Sobel, assistant professor of economics at
West Virginia University, agrees, stating that popular mainstream
texts "are all, in my view, substitutable."
Research backs up that claim as well. A 1998 study of seven
popular textbooks suggests that academic hand wringing over textbook
selection "is somewhat illusory" given the standardization among
the texts and "the high degree of consensus about what material
should be included and how it should be presented."
During a panel discussion on principles texts, Davies of West
Virginia says he once raised the issue of organization with a
senior editor of a major publisher, arguing that texts followed
the same flawed order in presenting material. "His response was
that he had heard that argument from others, but that no major
publishing company wants to risk coming out with a text that is
markedly different from the other texts on the market."
Under normal circumstances, 50,000 copies sold is break-even
for publishers. The subsequent profitability of textbooks has
had predictable effects, according to Gale of NYU. "The market
is very conservative, and editors do not want authors to change
the model that has been successful in the past."
"We all like to criticize the textbook," says Samuelson, MIT
professor and Nobel Laureate, but "it's an invention like the
wheel that's still with us."
What to do?
One economics professor suggests that perhaps we are getting exactly
the type of economics education that we want and need. After all,
that's what we're paying for, he says. Even so, is there room
"Basic economics should be required for everyone—a year-long
course in high schools, perhaps," Mankiw says. "That would greatly
improve public debate over economic policy. One argument for public
education is that democracy needs an informed citizenry. The study
of economics, as much as any discipline, serves that goal."
Sobel, for one, says, "the core problem is that we concentrate
too much on formal models, especially the mathematics and graphical
analysis, and do not spend enough time on public policy issues."
This leaves students with little to take into the real world,
Sobel says. He points to Samuelson largely because "it is the
one that most current books are formulated like. For most students
this type of book is too mathematical, too graphical and attempts
to cover too much material." This happens to fit with what professors
want to teach, but it might not be what students need to learn.
"Instructors want to teach the students the cost curves and fancy
models. Most instructors even skip all or most of the applications
provided in the text," he says.
Mark Skousen, professor of economics and finance at Rollins
College (Fla.) and an expert on the historical evolution of the
Samuelson text, concurs that a more hands-on textbook is needed
because current textbooks "don't relate very well to what's going
on in the real world." To fill that gap, Skousen is in the midst
of writing his own textbook that he believes does something "very
simple but powerful." It begins with a profit-and-loss income
statement instead of the traditional and too-theoretical production-possibility
"Students grasp it immediately, especially given that half of
students taking economics are business majors and have an accounting
background," Skousen says. "Income statements exist in the real
world. ... We can explain why the quantity, quality and variety
of goods and services keeps increasing, why downsizing and upsizing
occurs, why companies go bankrupt or go public, etc. I think I've
really found something here."
McElroy was a little more philosophic and personal about the problem:
"Economists have gotten too full of themselves, as a profession, and have
turned inward. There's an implicit disdainfulness about connecting with
noneconomists on any terms other than our own. We have collectively decided
that our time is better spent on publications and conversations with each
other rather than trying to create and continue an intelligent conversation
with noneconomists. I think it's the sign of an immature science and one
that may be gradually changing to a more healthy regard for educating
noneconomists. But it has a long way to go."