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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 23: Really Thinking Like an Economist

John J. Siegfried


John J. Siegfried In the most quoted passage from the 1991 study of the economics major that I coordinated (Siegfried et al., 1991b) we asserted that the overarching goal of economics education should be to “enable students to develop a capacity to think like an economist” (p. 21). Unfortunately, as Colander and McGoldrick suggest, the language we used in our report was not as sharp as it might have been. Our statement was rather easily shortened to “teach students how to think like an economist,” from which it was but a small step to “teach students to think like an economist.” Our committee did not believe that all students should think like economists everywhere and all of the time. Indeed, we explicitly articulated among ourselves that we hoped students would understand how to think like an economist, and then use that method of analysis when, and only when, they thought it appropriate. To emphasize the point, we should have said that the goal is to enable students to understand how to think like an economist when such thinking is appropriate, rather than to teach them to (always) think like an economist, as our statement has subsequently been interpreted. Students should be shown the opportunities and disadvantages of various methods of analysis, but then left to themselves to decide when it is appropriate to “think like an economist.” To think like an economist means to know when to use economic thinking, and when not to do so. The distinction is important...

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