At the CORE of Economics

Barnard professors collaborate with experts worldwide to create digital textbooks accessible to all

By N. Jamiyla Chisholm

Photo of Homa Zarghamee by Jonathan King

When the financial crisis hit in 2008, leaving individual lives and entire economies devastated, one of the things it laid bare was that economics as it has been traditionally taught in colleges and universities around the world couldn’t adequately explain why the crisis happened. “In fact,” says Barnard economics professor Rajiv Sethi, “old models for teaching economics didn’t pay much attention to the financial sector at all.”

“To the surprise of many noneconomists and prospective economics students,” explains Assistant Professor Homa Zarghamee, “undergraduate economics education in the U.S. contains almost no mention of the pivotal economic turns that shape the modern world, like the rise of agriculture 10,000 years ago or the Industrial Revolution 300 years ago, no mention of where the current globalized capitalist economic structure sits in the history of economic structures, and no mention of the history of economic thought.” Perhaps even more surprising, she says, “is how little the introductory undergraduate textbooks and pedagogy have changed over the last 75 years.”

That is, until the 2017 debut of CORE (Curriculum Open-Access Resources in Economics). Barnard economics faculty, including Sethi, Zarghamee, and Assistant Professor Belinda Archibong, played a key role in creating and disseminating that curriculum, which has won rave reviews from students and academics alike.

Sethi, Zarghamee, and Archibong also launched CORE USA, an outreach hub for economics professors and graduate students interested in using CORE. And later this year, with funding from the Teagle and Hewlett Foundations, members of the Barnard-Columbia economics community — CORE USA project manager Sarah Thomas, economics adjunct professor and CORE USA consultant Rena Rosenberg ’96, and Suresh Naidu, associate professor in economics and international and public affairs at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs — will launch the CORE Academy to oversee the development of a separate, U.S. edition of CORE’s textbook The Economy: Economics for a Changing World and to continue other initiatives.

Published for free online (with a hard copy available for purchase), CORE seeks to make curricula relevant to actual economies and students, especially women students, who are significantly underrepresented in the discipline, and to make economics accessible, both intellectually and financially (econ textbooks can sell for upwards of $400). Anyone can use the CORE materials simply by registering at core-econ.org.

Sethi was one of 23 economists from around the world who participated in the creation of The Economy. Unlike traditional textbooks, it doesn’t begin with abstract concepts or notions of idealized, rational markets. Instead, it delves into the complexity of issues: humans aren’t always rational actors; markets often fail to distribute goods and services efficiently; inequality is rampant.

And, as Zarghamee explains, “The Economy teaches the economic toolkit within a simultaneously historical and current context.” Now taught at more than 230 schools around the world, the curriculum’s innovative approach won acclaim in publications such as The New Yorker, The Economist, and the Financial Times.

Even though women comprise more than half of all undergraduate students, only about one-third of economics majors in the U.S. are women; however, CORE may help address that gender gap with its real-world focus. Kimberly Li ’22 engaged with CORE’s textbook and online resources in a class with Zarghamee. “It shifted economics from something I was looking at from the outside in into something more tangible that I could use to understand my world and situation better,” she says.

Now, when discussing the problems that economists should address, more students can turn to CORE for real-world answers.