Economics and the mid-life crisis have much in common: Both dwell on foregone opportunities

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. . . . . . . . . . .Richard Posner should be awarded the next Nobel Prize in Economics . . . . . . . . . . . .

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Recommendations for Improving Graduate Training in Economics

Some time ago, Tyler Cowen posted his recommendations for improving graduate education in economics. I have been thinking about them and would like to offer some comments.
1. Make everyone take a real class in history of economic thought and also in economic history. These are vanishing as prerequisites.
I took a course on the history of economic thought. Once. Well, twice, now that I think about it. Some of my best friends teach this stuff. I've never much cared for the field, and I don't see any reason to require it. Economic History, on the other hand, provides a great background and a great learning tool for grad students. I, personally, would never have taken a course in Economic History if I hadn't backed into one by accident, taught by Robert Fogel. It was one of the most exciting courses I have ever taken.

2. Make all U.S.-born students spend a month in a rural third world village, preferably one without a shower.
Does Northern Canada qualify? What about working in a mission in the inner city? I understand the point, I think. We have a wonderful, rich life in North America; students probably need to do more than just read about what it is like to live elsewhere.
3. Make all third world-born students take two full classes of education in the Western tradition, most of all The Enlightenment. Make them read Adam Smith, The Federalist Papers, and if possible convert them into Freemasons.
I presume Tyler is not completely serious here. Again, though, it would probably be helpful to them to have a better idea about the background of the material we cover in our courses.
4. Make sure everyone could pass a Chicago school-style oral exam from Aaron Director or a Turing-equivalent. It is amazing how many current Ph.d. candidates have not learned basic price theory.
How strongly can I agree with this one? I have had graduate students fail my intro exams; I've had others tell my students, very forcefully, that the wrong answer is correct. Please, Please, can we require more than math machismo in graduate programmes?

One of the regular readers of The Eclectic Econoclast sent me the following e-mail message last week [reproduced, with edits, with permission]:
I recently had a rather disturbing discussion/argument with a student who was just accepted into the graduate program in Economics at a major university. It turns out that his undergraduate work is in computer science and mathematics. He admitted to having done almost no reading in macroeconomics (whether macro is legitimate is another issue). Among his amazing claims was that he didn't know how to describe comparative advantage without using mathematics symbols (in fact, he didn't know who Ricardo was!), and he flatly denied that comparative advantage implies that all nations should have a free trade policy. He claimed that it's not uncommon for people like himself, who don't have a bachelor's in economics to be accepted into grad programs. I gave him a link to Ricardo's own natural language exposition on comparative advantage and he called it drivel.

I find it amazing that such a person, who would make such gross errors in logic and who hasn't even heard of Ricardo to be accepted into a grad program, and at a major university at that. So, my questions are: is this indeed common? Why the obsession with mathematization? Is it possible that this obsession has somehow obstructed students like him and ultimately professors that they would become from comprehending natural language arguments? Considering the complexity of subjective human valuations and preferences it seems obvious to me that using math to describe basic economic principles is inappropriate. What's going on with economics in academia these days?
What he said!
Tyler concludes:
My recipe for George Mason, my own school, is different. Most of the graduate students simply need to work harder.
I suspect Tyler is playfully prodding his own students here. The grad students I have known, in general, work very hard. They don't always work efficiently, though, and not many of them have a real zeal for learning.
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