It’s a new school year, time to rethink what we teach!

America’s 2008 financial crisis and its consequences led to long, fierce debates over the past decade about what went wrong in the economy, and how what’s taught in economics classes should change.  Among professors, the Institute for New Economic Thinking (INET) plays a big role, and it’s flagship  Curriculum of Open-access Resources in Economics (CORE) textbook has been getting a lot of attention this Fall.

Many ideas from INET and CORE are already woven into my teaching, based on their role in the scholarly literature.  For example, I have used the Piketty and Saez data on income distribution ever since they first appeared in journal articles, well before the financial crisis. But N238 differs in many ways from standard introductory economics classes.  We just had an email exchange among a few Friedman School faculty about this and I am keen to hear what others think it, so I’ll post a few some notes here in hopes of sparking conversation about what’s taught in this class.

First, the innovations brought by INET and CORE aim are about responding to the 2008 recession with more attention to contemporary macroeconomics, regarding a country’s income level (growth and fluctuations) and income distribution (production, employment).  In contrast, the focus of our syllabus is entirely on how economics matters for agriculture,  food systems and nutrition.  Within nutrition we focus mainly on dietary intake, with two whole weeks on details of consumer behavior that are almost entirely omitted from the CORE textbook.

Second, the definition of economics used by INET and CORE is that economists study income flows.  Hence the title of their book is “The Economy“.  In contrast, the title of our class and of the background textbook we use is “Economics“.  The difference is important because we define economics as a method, not a topic.  We use economics to study all aspects of agriculture, food and nutrition, including many aspects of individual behavior and social outcomes that do not involve money.  Economics is just one of many ways to study these things, which can also be analyzed from other perspectives such as anthropology, sociology, history, or epidemiology.  By the end of each semester in N238, students should have a pretty clear sense of the difference between “the economy” (meaning what’s measured as income) and other things that matter for nutrition and can be studied using economics such as gender bias in time use within households, or consumer response to coupons and vouchers, or the impacts of home gardens on diets.

Third, the target audience for INET and CORE is students who really want to study economics as such.  The CORE textbook is written in a rather dense, abstract way that does not aim to reach the casual reader.  My aim is to teach in way that doesn’t require a textbook at all.  Class slides use updated data, and students who want a text for alternative explanations of basic concepts are encouraged to buy an inexpensive older edition.  I also point students to the relevant Khan Academy videos.  That solves the textbook pricing problem, and allows us to focus throughout the class on customized material about agriculture, food & nutrition.

So… I am keen to hear from anyone interested in curricular issues.  Can you see ways to teach economics more effectively, in this or other classes?


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