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From Ideal to Real

Most colleges teach introductory economics in the dry traditional way, using an approach that was first adopted in the 1950s and has changed little since then. “The conventional course begins with abstraction,” says Alan Dye, associate professor of economics and the department chair at Barnard. “It looks at things like supply and demand curves, and introduces students to the tools they’ll need to proceed to intermediate courses. But it’s light on the institutions and relationships of the actual economy, and on a connection to the real issues of the day.”

Why is that approach still nearly ubiquitous on college campuses? “In economics, we use more mathematical models than the other social sciences, and we tend to think more abstractly,” explains Barnard’s David Weiman, the Alena Wels Hirschorn ’58 Professor of Economics.

Until the fall of 2007, Barnard’s two entry-level courses, “Introduction to Macroeconomics” and “Introduction to Microeconomics,” followed that abstract approach. But, for years both Weiman and Dye, as well as other members of the Barnard economics faculty, talked about their increasing unhappiness with the abstract introduction to their field. Barnard’s two entry-level courses succeeded in giving students a general knowledge of theories and tools basic to the discipline. But students were left with what Weiman describes as “only a tenuous, casual notion of what a corporation is, what a bank is, how money functions, and how federal and state governments regulate the economy.”

Further, the department came to realize, for students not planning to major in economics, it would be preferable to offer a single course that in one semester covered the basics of both the broad “macro” and specific “micro” aspects of the economy. Jumping off from issues of wide student interest—like health care, the environment, and labor relations—such a course would also explain how economists think about such issues. For students planning an economics major, the department envisioned a second introductory course teaching the mathematical tools needed for higher theoretical study.

Following procedures for curriculum change, the department developed and approved those two new courses, and then submitted them to the faculty’s College-wide committee on instruction. Once the committee endorsed the proposal, its positive recommendation went to a meeting of the entire faculty, where both courses won a final vote.

Today, the study of economics at Barnard starts with a lively course boasting the more friendly name “Introduction to Economic Reasoning” (ECON BC 1003).” Student enrollment has gone way up, and to accommodate rising demand, the department added more course sections for the 2008-2009 academic year. One section is taught by Weiman, another by Marcellus Andrews, term professor of economics and author of The Political Economy of Hope and Fear: Capitalism and the Black Condition in America, about free markets and technology, and their relationship to poverty and inequality.

Weiman says that while he and Andrews differ slightly in how they organize the course, as they continue to experiment they’re adopting each other’s ideas and “moving toward a common platform.” For example, Andrews recommended the book that Weiman decided to use as the first reading of the semester, The Market System by Yale economist Charles Lindblom, which in very accessible language explains not only the economic realities of today’s global marketplace, but the political and social realities as well. Such books are hard to find, Dye says, because most cogent economic texts are “written in ways hard for introductory-level students to understand.”

Whatever their level of understanding, students are like everyone else these days in wanting to know what can be done to stabilize the economy. “This crisis is a laboratory for us,” Dye says.

Indeed, during one class last fall, Weiman presented a May 2008 Lehman Brothers balance sheet revealing a company whose reported net worth was grossly overstated, being based on the company’s holdings of $40 billion in “toxic” mortgage-backed securities. Students were assigned the task of explaining the profit incentive that led Lehman Brothers and other companies to become so highly leveraged.

Other discussions and assignments have focused on such matters as the volatility in oil prices, government regulation of the fi nancial and manufacturing sectors, the internal rules of stock and commodity exchanges, and the relationship of the current crisis to tax rates, interest rates and monetary supply. Whatever the focus, students learn to make sense of and create diagrammatic presentations of the facts, figures, and trends. “I feel very strongly about making sure students have the capacity to digest quantitative empirical information,” Weiman says.

For those pursuing an economics major, Barnard’s second introductory course follows the math to a much higher level. “Mathematical Methods for Economics” (ECON BC 1007) starts with the basics—algebra, solving equations, and graphing—and moves on to calculus and its application to economic problems and policies. “Why should students care about solving simultaneous equations?” asks Sharon Harrison, associate professor of economics and the course instructor. “One example of their relevance is the models economists use to understand the behavior of businesses and consumers.”

In a class about supply and demand, students learn how Starbucks decides on the price of a latte and on how many lattes—at what price—it’s most profitable to sell. Says Harrison, “The higher the price, the more Starbucks wants to sell. But on the demand side, when something costs more, people want less of it. Simultaneous equations put the two together, and show when they match up, or what we call the equilibrium. So, in order to understand the implications of this behavior, you have to know how to do the math.”

Harrison has won a Gladys Brooks Foundation Excellence in Teaching Award for her success in instilling students with a passion for challenging subjects. “I’ve always been excited about how you can take something abstract and learn about the real world. It’s great to show students that,” she says. “For every single math lesson you see in my syllabus, there are real-life applications.”

In today’s world, perhaps it’s not just Barnard’s economic majors, but everyone—of every age, profession and economic station—who may need two semesters of introductory economics, and a working knowledge of calculus, just to get by.

-Anne Schutzberger, illustration by Jennifer Daniel