Educating Economists
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Educating Economists

The Teagle Discussion on Re-evaluating the Undergraduate Economics Major

Edited by David Colander and KimMarie McGoldrick

The economics major is a central part of a college education. But is that economics major doing what it is meant to do? And if not, how should it be changed? This book raises a set of provocative questions that encourage readers to look at the economics major in a different light than it is typically considered and provides a series of recommendations for change.
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Chapter 4: Moral Reasoning in Economics

Jonathan B. Wight


* Jonathan B. Wight The Teagle discussion analyzes why economics teachers have become overly narrow in their pedagogical perspectives, thus pulling back from fully supporting the liberal arts agenda. In Chapter 1, Colander and McGoldrick (p. 6) observe that the generalist approach that excites students by asking “big think” questions across disciplinary boundaries fails to generate new knowledge, while the narrow “little think” questions that can be answered often fail to develop the critical thinking skills necessary for liberal education. As one example, the authors cite the decline of moral reasoning in economics, which was once center stage in Adam Smith’s analysis of society. Since the rise of positivism in the late nineteenth century, moral reasoning has become an intellectual casualty. Virtually all major public policy problems cross disciplinary boundaries however, and raise substantial normative questions. If a key goal of the liberal arts is to prepare students to make reasoned judgments about complex issues, economics educators cannot sit on the sidelines and expect that this will happen magically. Teachers play an important role in defining the questions and discerning the methods for arriving at answers. A liberal arts focus in economics would ensure that students grapple with ethical dilemmas informed by a variety of approaches and competing ethical frameworks. Moral discourse is an important way for students to scrutinize their own unstated beliefs and to develop a deeper appreciation for the benefits (and the limitations) of economic theory. Without it, we may be training technocrats skilled in techniques but not...

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