“By the way, these are just theories,” my economics professor casually noted, implying that the mathematical relationships on the lecture slide may not reflect reality. I imagined myself standing up in my lecture hall of 300, exclaiming: So why are we spending all our time learning the ins and outs of these theories? Why aren’t we also analyzing the frameworks from which they rest?
A conversation with an alumn exacerbated my intellectual discomfort. He told me he never used any specific thing he learned from economic classes. But don’t worry about that, he implied. Economics taught him how to solve problems. I see the relation — if he meant solving more types of economic problems. But if he meant solving typical problems he may confront at work, I don’t see a clear connection. Although, sometimes it’s nice to imagine myself gaining four problem solving points on my 0 – 100 problem solving meter, ready to tackle all sorts of problems as I exit Lorch Hall every other day.
Now, I don’t question the importance and applicability of quantitative abilities. But such a justification for a concentration hides the fact that we economics majors have little use for the theories we work so hard to ingrain in our minds.
Most economics majors don’t mind. The reality is that many students major in economics because it ostensibly provides instant credibility for future employers. Financially, it’s practical.
But besides serving as a stepping-stone to professional success, the economics department also prides itself on imparting to its students a valuable framework for evaluating the world around them. And it certainly does. But students will get an even more nuanced understanding of economic matters if they supplement this lens with others.
For example, we study the Laffer Curve — the tradeoff between equality and efficiency — without debating how much efficiency, how much equality and why? The societal costs of inequality cannot easily be quantified. Analyzing economic issues from multiple lenses would provide a more complete picture. But we don’t discuss or debate this information — we just consume it. Upper level classes may offer comprehensive analysis of these issues, but students have to clear high hurdles to access them.
While hammering in economic theories, introductory classes actually disillusion many students who care about economic problems. So these students take social science classes, typically heavily based on content. It seems that these students are more interested in economic issues than actual economics majors, even though they sometimes wallow in the anecdotal. They claim that the dry and conservative nature of the introductory classes repelled them, but the heavy math may have been the real reason. If so, they are committing the same ideological error but in reverse: They’re prescribing social medications to economic events without understanding the underlying economic conditions.
There’s one group of people proposing solutions without an understanding of business and statistics. There’s another group of people trying to quantify and model everything without a moral framework to prioritize their results. Comprehensive analysis requires both of these skill sets. Students typically only have one.
An interdisciplinary program that evaluates events through economic, philosophical and historical lenses will instill these qualitative and quantitative tools in its students. Bringing together these departments might be bureaucratically difficult, but that shouldn’t be a major roadblock. Such a bridging can actually send a message: The University promotes an interdisciplinary approach to solving interconnected problems.
One model already exists: Philosophy, Politics and Economics. Originating at the University of Oxford, PPE — which seeks to combine these areas of study and examine the areas where they intersect — is offered at several leading universities around the world. This University has flirted with implementing this program before, but nothing has come to fruition yet. Departments may respond if its students demonstrate interest, so e-mail your department if you’d like to see such a program.
I don’t envision unrelated introductory classes in the three different departments. I envision interdisciplinary courses where students use economic and philosophical lenses to analyze problems — where they converse as well as calculate.
Those who want to go into finance or academia will still get the full dose of economics. We certainly need economics specialists. But generalists are important, too. PPE may foster more socially conscious economists like Joseph Stiglitz and Jeffrey Sachs. Or thinkers like Adam Smiths and David Hume. There was a time when our economists were also our philosophers.
Perhaps a future alumnus will come back and tell students that in addition to learning how to evaluate data, she also learned how to evaluate texts and ideas. She understood economic affairs in political and historical contexts, cultivating a genuine interest in the process. She’ll recommend PPE wholeheartedly, redefining what it means to think practically about one’s major.
Erik Torenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.