Thomas Carlyle first coined the phrase “dismal science” back in the 19th century to describe the field of economics. In a modern setting, the term aptly fits the majority of students’ relationship with the subject. Walk through Lau 2 in in the middle of the semester and you will see fellow Hoyas scrambling to figure out how to shift supply and demand curves.
An economics major, I have had my share of frustrating nights trying to figure a semester’s worth of material in a matter of hours. As I graduate with a degree in economics this week, I am still struggling to figure out how I feel about the subject. I came into Georgetown curious about the field and its application, but instead my introductory classes were filled with theoretical models and required mundane memorization of theoretical terms I would never need to know.
Yet after trudging through the earlier classes I was finally rewarded with higher-level coursework that provided intellectually stimulating insights at the intersection of economics and other fields. Yet for the students that only make it through the introductory classes, they are left with an incomplete view of what the subject is and how it can be applied.
Ask a Georgetown student that has taken the introductory coursework to draw out a supply and demand graph, and they will not have much of a problem. But ask them to explain the underlying causes of a financial crisis and they will struggle to produce a response. It is not that the financial crisis is easy to understand, but if economics is meant to help explain our world, why does our introductory coursework fail to help us do so?
I learned far more from the subject when I could actually apply concepts in a more hands-on approach. The most econometrics I learned in a course was during a research seminar I took with James Vreeland, where I had to construct a data set from scratch and write a full-length paper. I learned far less in my actual Introduction to Econometrics course, where I was required to memorize certain terms and concepts with limited application of them in practice.
Despite having world-class professors who made major contributions in their fields, the Georgetown economics curriculum does not provide enough flexibility to allow these experts to incorporate their work into their material. It is only when you take the higher level classes that you can finally see economics in action, yet few students have this opportunity due to scheduling limitations.
Another flaw is that we are taught material with the assumption that concepts are part of an infallible doctrine that has been set in stone. Economics is a much more nascent area of study, with the bulk of the material having been developed less than a century ago. We are never told to question these concepts, but are simply mandated to take everything at face value. I believe this method of instruction leaves holes in students’ understanding of economics, failing to help them to be able to critically analyze concepts and apply them in a real world setting.
The consequence of this approach to instruction is that it leaves students with a vague understanding of how our world works. Economics and Political Economy majors have the benefits of taking higher level, advanced courses, but for the bulk of Georgetown students there are significant knowledge gaps. In addition to the financial crisis, Hoyas fail to grasp other relevant topics, such as the benefits of free trade and the economic tools that governments have to stimulate growth. If a Jesuit education is truly meant to create future leaders, it has to provide a sound understanding of economics in relation to pressing challenges.
I hope that future students at Georgetown have the opportunity to take a greater variety of intellectually stimulating economics courses, classes that provide a critical perspective. Being required to read the works of the greats – Smith, Keynes, Veblen, Schumpeter, and yes, even Marx – helps put economics in the context of historical, political and philosophical developments. Additionally, giving professors more flexibility in their curriculum and providing more applicability for students will help make the subject more relevant.
In the end, the point of economics is that it gives us a tool to better understand and relate to the world around us. It teaches us that in a world of scarcity, we are forced to make decisions under constraints and that incentives matter. By applying rigorous methods to everyday issues, we can learn how tackle some of the most pressing issues in society today. At the very least, our economics coursework ought to teach us this. It took over a dozen courses, but I have finally made the most of my economics major. My only hope is that Hoyas can have a better phrase than “dismal science” to describe economics after they graduate.
Anirudha Vaddadi is a senior in the School of Foreign Service