[OPE-L] Rethinking Core Course Work for Ph.Ds in Economics

From: GERALD LEVY (gerald_a_levy@MSN.COM)
Date: Tue Jan 08 2008 - 19:12:12 EST

I heard about this thru Fred Lee. 
> This article, 'Economists Call for Rethinking of Core Course> Work for Ph.D.s in the Discipline' is available online> at this address:> > http://chronicle.com/temp/email2.php?id=cXwhxzWvjz2nbybQxtqS3CWjmGctxG9Z It also is *attached* In solidarity, Jerry

attached mail follows:

 Economists Call for Rethinking of Core Course Work for Ph.D.'s in the Discipline - Chronicle.com
The Chronicle of Higher Education
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Monday, January 7, 2008

Economists Call for Rethinking of Core Course Work for Ph.D.'s in the Discipline

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Doctoral programs in economics should radically redesign the grueling first-year course work known as "the core," several prominent scholars said on Friday during a panel here at the annual meeting of the American Economic Association.

Many elements of the core were set in stone shortly after World War II, and the courses have not always evolved to make room for emerging fields of study, the scholars said. They also complained that the courses tend to emphasize the abstract manipulation of equations, with little sustained attention given to real-world problems and data.

"The core needs to have a certain element of fun," said Bo E. Honoré, a professor of economics at Princeton University. "I think it's important that students come out of the first year with a sense of excitement about economics and excitement about doing research."

Putting Macroeconomics in Its Place

The panelists were far from unanimous, however, about exactly how the core should be changed. One thorny topic was macroeconomics, which traditionally occupies roughly a third of the course work in the core. Macroeconomics­—the study of how fiscal and monetary policies shape economies at the national level—was the terrain on which the most famous battles of mid-20th-century economics were fought. But if it seemed natural to devote a huge portion of the curriculum to macroeconomics in 1950, not all scholars feel the same way today.

"It's not clear why macroeconomics is given an entire year in the core," said Susan C. Athey, a professor of economics at Harvard University and the winner of the 2007 John Bates Clark Medal, which is given biennially to a distinguished economist under the age of 40. "I think macro is very important, but it's not clear to me that monetary theory is more important for everyone to learn than, for example, theories about social-entitlement programs or international trade."

Most of the other five panelists agreed with Ms. Athey, though all conceded that macroeconomics has been a source of models and techniques that have shaped the entire discipline.

The task of defending macroeconomics was left to Michael Woodford, a professor of political economy at Columbia University. Mr. Woodford argued that all economists should learn the dynamic-modeling tools that are taught in macroeconomics courses. "A lot of students find that the macro sequence is the hardest part of the core," he said. "That makes me reluctant to believe that we could radically reduce the length of it and people would still get the important parts."

Facts vs. Tools

On a broader level, the panelists disagreed about whether the core should be imagined as a set of crucial, substantive facts or as a package of techniques that would allow students to take more specialized courses in the second year and begin their own research. Ms. Athey argued for the latter approach. "Instead of trying to think about every possible thing that every economist should know," she said, "we should be thinking about, What's really going to help these second-year courses move along very quickly into the substance?"

The panel was organized by David C. Colander, a professor of economics at Middlebury College who has written extensively on doctoral education in the field. "I just teach undergraduates," he said, "so I can sort of throw bombs over toward the graduate schools and try to raise questions that otherwise can't be raised."

In The Making of an Economist, Redux (Princeton University Press, 2007), Mr. Colander argued that doctoral programs have improved in some respects during the last 20 years. (For example, he sees much more engagement today with empirical data and public-policy problems.) But he also argued for substantial changes in the core, which he views as dominated by sterile mathematics. "If ... creativity and economic reasoning, not mathematics, is the core of economics," he wrote, "then it seems reasonable that the core courses should focus somewhat more on creativity and economic reasoning and somewhat less on technique."

Despite their broad agreement about the need to redesign the core, no one on the panel was hopeful that departments would embrace the idea. Ms. Athey said that the status quo seems to be rigidly entrenched, even at elite universities that one might expect would be open to new approaches.

Derek A. Neal, a professor of economics at the University of Chicago, agreed, and he used economic metaphors sardonically to make the point. "All of us who have ever been chairs know that there's a huge agency problem that individual departments have to face," he said. Faculty members can be persuaded to say, ""'Yes, I understand that the core is a public good,'" he said. "But after you give them the property rights to teach in the first year, getting them to behave as if it's a public good and not a private platform is—well, it's another problem in agency theory."

But even if revising the core would require bruising departmental battles, that didn't stop one panelist from dreaming about a much larger change.

"We actually shouldn't be thinking narrowly in terms of first-year economics," said Edward L. Glaeser, a professor of economics at Harvard University. "We should be thinking about first-year social science. The whole division between economics, sociology, and political science feels like a hangover from the 19th century. So many of the people in our profession are working on problems that have traditionally been seen as part of sociology or political science.

"We should probably be rethinking from the ground up all of the social sciences," Mr. Glaeser continued. "A more attractive model might be a first-year course sequence that trains a social scientist to work on anything, rather than having separate first-year economics, sociology, and political science course work. But maybe that's a discussion for a different panel."



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