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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 5: Thinking for Yourself, Like an Economist

Robert F. Garnett


Robert F. Garnett David Colander and KimMarie McGoldrick’s call for a liberal arts revision of the economics major is timely and compelling. It coincides with the increasing prominence of the undergraduate major as a locus of liberal learning (AAC&U, 2006). It feeds economic educators’ growing demands for pedagogies and curricula that promote critical inquiry (Ferber, 1999; Earl, 2000; Feiner, 2003; Fullbrook, 2003; Underwood, 2004; Becker, 2007; Groenewegen, 2007). It invites renewed reflection on why even highachieving majors have difficulty applying economic knowledge to real-life personal, professional, and public problems (Katz and Becker, 1999; Salemi and Siegfried, 1999; Hansen et al., 2002). And it acknowledges structural impediments to its own proposed reforms, such as the chronic mismatch between the intellectual skills developed in economics PhD programs and those required for effective undergraduate teaching (Colander and McGoldrick, Chapter 1 this volume, pp. 9–12). Colander and McGoldrick offer no facile prescriptions. Rather, they pose an evocative question: how can the economics major contribute more effectively to the goals of liberal education? In this short essay, I seek to add breadth and force to Colander and McGoldrick’s intervention by highlighting one of its unstated premises: the value of intellectual freedom. This concept plays a crucial role in their argument, such as their criticism of the current major for “not providing the context for the ideas it presents” (ibid., p. 20) and for placing undue emphasis on formal models that “too often involve uncritical acceptance of assumptions” (ibid., p. 6). Yet Colander and...

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