The Teagle Discussion on Re-evaluating the Undergraduate Economics Major
Edited by David Colander and KimMarie McGoldrick
Chapter 3: The Economics Major as Illiberal Education
Stephen A. Marglin David Colander and KimMarie McGoldrick perform a valuable service in the thoughtful way they address the problem of the balance between specialization and general education. I agree with the major thrust of the Teagle Foundation draft report, that the economics major, and other majors as well, do not adequately serve the purposes of a liberal education. And I think the report is right on the money in arguing that the organizational problem is one of incentives. I am perhaps a bit less sanguine than the report’s authors about the possibility of changing those incentives. Presumably the authors intend their recommendations for the deans and faculties of individual colleges and universities. But reform in one institution may not be practical in a culture in which prestige and power are determined largely within academic disciplines. This said, I think there are some issues that, if not peculiar to economics, deserve emphasis in the context of the economics major. I will ruffle few feathers by asserting that a primary goal of a liberal education ought to be to learn to think critically. But my next proposition will perhaps be less agreeable: that the economics major subverts this goal. At best it teaches students to think like economists; it does not teach students the limits of thinking like an economist. One might object that this is someone else’s concern. A liberal arts education is more than the major, and thinking like an economist is challenged in other disciplines, in other courses,...
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