Should economics be even harder to enter?

I teach a course in African development, cross-listed in political science, economics, and African studies. The material ranges across all three disciplines.

Recently the economics department made an unexpected demand: add a microeconomics pre-requisite, or it can’t be an economics course. The logic (if I understand correctly): economics courses build on economic tools; economic tools are taught in the introductory sequence; courses that do not need the introductory sequence are not economics courses.

Now, this year about 60 of my students were econ majors, 60 were poli sci, and 60 were everything else–art, math, history, english, and so on. A micro pre-req would bar pretty much all of the “everything else” category, as well as eliminate half the poli sci class (it is atrocious, but there is no statistics or microeconomics requirement to Yale’s poli sci major). So I declined.

Here’s my logic: I think the gateway into economics ought to be bright and glittering. I think most students are driven by issues, not tools. I think to get them to chase those tools–micro theory, econometrics, you name it–we need to help them understand why they are valuable and important. So while most economics classes ought to build on the introductory sequence, it doesn’t hurt to have a few high-popularity, accessible courses that draw the rest of the world into the discipline.

Also, it doesn’t hurt the economics undergraduates to see their econ logic face politics and history in the same course. It doesn’t happen often enough.

13 thoughts on “Should economics be even harder to enter?

  1. I completely agree, Chris. In fact the reason I didn’t work nearly as hard on micro and econometrics at undergraduate level (much to my subsequent disadvantage) is because I didn’t see the link from the very formal, abstract models to anything useful. It was never explained well at all. A course like this would really have started that process much, much earlier.

    So does this mean your course will no longer be listed as an economics course?

  2. Have you taken a look at the performance of your students based on those three classifications: econ, poli sci, other?

  3. Totally agree, same as Adam. To my disadvantege, I did not see the relevance of econometrics before I had taken a lot of more ‘real-world’ courses.

    My tip is to read stuff like Bill Easterly’s ‘the Elusive Quest for Growth’ and Dani Rodrik’s ‘Skeptics guide to the cross national evidence’ as early as possible. Because the implications laid out in that particular material is highly relevant to policy, it is also motivating. And since it is motivating, students will try hard to understand much of the difficult methods used in the material, and hence feel both motivated and prepared for a heavy stat course or abstract micro.

  4. Makes sense. I was turned off economics by my intro to micro class as an undergrad. It was dull, dry, and abstract. That, of course, doesn’t explain why I was turned on to statistics. That, too, was dull, dry, and abstract, but in a much nerdier way.

  5. Chris, this is the best point and decision you have ever made…(and I am an econ PhD)

  6. I think I forgot another reading tip:
    Gerald Meier and Joseph Stiglitz’s collection in “Frontiers of Development Economics” from 2000. After finally realizing the joy of micro and stats, I voluntarily paid it 35 bucks and read the whole thing paralell to writing my thesis. Excellent volume!

  7. I also agree 100%, I was dragged kicking and screaming through the economics in my undergrad to get at the development. It took about 3 years before I saw any value of micro theory and stats at all.

  8. I absolutely agree. This year, I have learned more economics in my international development studies class than in my macroeconomics prerequisite.

  9. Yes, I too agree 100%. I am an economics and political science major, and I had to take ALL the required intro classes at Northwestern University: macro, micro, econometrics. In my third year, I have FINALLY gotten to take interesting classes in development economics, and while I love econometrics as a tool to study development, I have to say that I might have dropped my economics major earlier due to lack of interest! The upper level classes are fascinating; the intro ones are often not, as it’s difficult to see beyond the theory. If I had been able to take basic econ alongside classes like yours, I would have been much more interested in my economics major from my Freshman, rather than my junior, year.

  10. Yes its true. im absolutely 100% behind your decision. way to go!

  11. I wish I had read this post three years ago, when I took a very dry required intro econ course that talked very little of the outside world (examples often included apple orchards…a real world experience, I suppose, but not exactly useful in the long run). To make a long story short, the course was too abstract, I did terribly, and three years later I remember very little. However, I took an amazing course on postcolonialism and globalization that, similar to your course, mixed social theory, economics, and “everything else”. I admit that I probably wouldn’t have taken the course at the time had it been cross-listed in economics, but it should have been. However, having recently graduated and retained nothing of my intro econ course, I am actually considering retaking it (statistics as well) now that I can see it through the lens of politics and history.