I taught economics for 45 years. I taught thousands and thousands of introductory economics students, upper division students, masters students, and Ph.D. students in four universities. Students taking introductory economics often hated the course. When I see people today and they ask me what I taught when I taught school, universally and without exception they typically throw up. People reiterate that econ was one of their most difficult and hated classes. More is the pity, since economic illiteracy and stupidity are at the very heart of many of the problems facing our country and the world today. People and politicians cheerfully substitute their own ideological crackpot economics for sound economic reasoning and analysis. As I was warned during an early graduate econ class at the University of Michigan, "Good economics is rarely good politics."
To keep a class of 400 students semi-alert during my two decades at Brigham Young University, even 20 percent alert, I invented outrageous stories and finally began simplifying economic analysis. To begin with, on the first day of school, I usually said, "I would like all the students from Idaho to please leave now. We have too many students in here." The class would look around at each other and ask one another, "What did he say?" But no one ever left. Either I had no one from Idaho in the class or they were being sneaky about it. If they had known how much they were going to hate economics, they would have cheerfully left and avoided a semester of persecution.
Of course, students came into economics biased by horror stories they heard from economic illiterates who took the class two or three times and still failed it. So they started economics with a huge load of negative thought. Then many had heard that I was a hard teacher. By hard, they meant that I covered the basic material in the textbook and then asked them a few questions about the material to see if they had learned anything. But such expectations placed much stress on students used to a less demanding curriculum.
After the first exam, the whining and weeping and wailing began. Students would pop into my office with the usual predictable complaints such as, "I really knew the material but your exam didn't allow me to show what I learned." So I would say, "Please sit down and let's give you a short oral exam and see how much you actually knew." Whereupon, the student(s) began to squirm, sat down, and quickly proved they were full of hot air and didn't know the difference between economics and sociology.
Then again, many students, though hardly a majority, really find an intellectual home in economics. Economic reasoning requires analytical reasoning, a bit of long division, and at the upper reaches, some differential calculus. Basic economics requires doing some simple equations and drawing some simple graphs. I have watched students freeze up when I draw my first graph of the course on the overhead display. The x axis? The y axis? You have lost me. The demand curve slopes downward and to the right? Why not upward and to the left?
The best students were selected as Teaching Assistants for the next semester. I had many outstanding teaching assistants, some of whom were better able to interact with students and explain the material than I could, and I was always quick to recognize such ability. Some of the best students went on to enter Ph.D. or MBA programs, and, some times, even medical and dental school. Many went to law school. These students were quick to acknowledge that sharpening up their analytical skills was critical in their professional success.
My ultimate reward would come when I would see a former student who had been out of school awhile and they would tell me, "I wish I had learned economics. Most of the work I am now doing requires economic analysis and I know I could have done a better job if I had paid attention to you." Hallelujah. Now if just one wayward economic know-nothing in Congress would just admit the same. Members of Congress should be required to sit through a basic class in economics and money and banking. But I know that is expecting too much. It is much easier to assume that economists know nothing and just spout nonsense than it is to accept the fact that you are spouting nonsense yourself.
To be continued.