Teaching Dilemmas

Israel has developed world-class economics faculties with a pronounced specialization in the most theoretical branches of economics. Is that a good thing?

Academics (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
OPEN ANY ACADEMIC journal on economics nowadays, and you will see more mathematical equations than anything else. Attend a university lecture on economics and you’ll see lots more numbers. Of all the social science disciplines, economics appears to be the one that has most eagerly adopted the most abstract and complex mathematics into its models.
The mathematization of economics, which has been going on for many decades, has not passed over the basic education given to undergraduate students, who from the first day they pass through the gates of the university invest much of their time on covering as much ground as they can in mastering mathematical subjects and analyzing complex theoretical economics models.
This is especially true in Israel, which has developed world-class economics faculties with a pronounced specialization in the most theoretical branches of economics.
Although there is little controversy regarding the need for a rigorously mathematical scientific approach to the study of economics, not everyone is convinced that teaching only the technical side of economics to undergraduates is an unmitigated advantage. A joint team of economics professors and students, sponsored by the Economics and Society Program of Jerusalem’s Van Leer Institute and the National Union of Israeli Students, recently took a close look at the undergraduate economics curriculum at local universities.
Given that graduates of economics programs at universities often go on to leading positions in commercial and financial companies and institutions, what and how they are taught has an importance that goes beyond the halls of academe. And the team comes away with a clear conclusion that there is a gap between what is taught and what students should be learning.
In a position paper, presented at a round table discussion evening at the Van Leer Institute, the team presents several central recommendations, including greater emphasis on the history and philosophy of economics and economic thinking; more presentation of critical thinking and ongoing disputes within the discipline; more study of the economy of Israel rather than abstract economic models alone; and greater attention to real-life economic events.
But the team’s recommendations are neither incontrovertible nor universally accepted by all the experts in the field.
“MOST OF MY CLASSMATES enrolled in economics because they believed it was what they needed to get a high-paying job,” says Yael Berger, who graduated with a BA in economics from Haifa University a few years ago and now works in retail management. “They imagined that they would be taught practical, money-making skills. Instead, they were simply bewildered by the content of the class work, which involved an endless sequence of mathematical techniques and abstract descriptions. We felt like we might as well have signed up to study nuclear physics.”
Berger’s recollections of a mismatch between the expectations of incoming students and what economics undergraduate departments offer is not atypical. According to Nathan Sussman, a professor of economics at the Hebrew University and one of the authors of the Van Leer paper, part of the problem is that there are many different expectations regarding what an economics undergraduate education is supposed to give a student.
“The market views it as a signal, in the sense that students who graduate from a university economics program show that they can handle challenging and abstract analytical thinking about economic subjects,” Sussman tells The Report. “Graduate programs in economics regard it as the source of future students for advanced degrees in the subject and eventually academic economics. Students want it to provide an interesting and horizon-expanding curriculum. They also expect it to provide them with the tools they need for entering the work force. It is not clear that the latter is the case.”
Another issue that Sussman and the Van Leer team faced is the fact that there is no objectively agreed-upon definition of what an “economist” is. “There is general agreement on what a lawyer, psychologist, or doctor is, and therefore what those entering those professions should study,” notes Sussman. “But there is no such agreement with regards to what an ‘economist’ is. We define an economist as someone who has the ‘tool box’ that an economist should have, namely being able to analyze both microeconomic and macroeconomic situations, someone who understands the role of incentives and rational consideration in economics.”
The Van Leer team used that working definition as a guide for its work. “We are teaching a science,” stresses Sussman.
“That means that we must give the students the technical tools they need, which include a lot of mathematics. We also expect students to learn about on-going dialogues in the economics profession, to understand that it is a living science with internal disputes among practitioners.”
As a result, he says, “We need to add more intellectual content to the curriculum, meaning courses on the history of economics, and the history of the development of economic thought. In addition, students should be required to take a course on the Israeli economy in the global arena. For preparing students for entering the labor market, they also need courses on financing and accounting, along with a course on ethics in economics relations.”
Sussman is well aware that this is a lot to ask of a university curriculum that many students already find overwhelming. This is especially true given that the Israeli BA program is typically a three-year program, in contrast to the four-year BA track common in North America. One solution to this, says Sussman, is in fact to copy the North American model, and require economics undergraduates in Israel to study four years for their BA degree.
“The problem with that is the extra cost, both directly in tuition and in the time investment, given that Israelis generally start their undergraduate studies at an older age than their American peers [because of compulsory military duty],” he says.
“Another possible way to juggle all the demands is to institute two tracks for the economics BA, a ‘default’ track and an honors track, which will be more theory- and mathematics- heavy.”
ARIEL RUBINSTEIN, PROFESSOR of economics at Tel Aviv University says that there may not even be any justification for the traditional BA in economics.
“I am for canceling the BA degree in economics,” says Rubinstein. “I think there is room for less than a full degree, which will expose students to ‘economic reasoning,’ but this should not be a full degree.”
Rubinstein, who was awarded the Israel Prize in Economics in 2002, tells The Report that he was offered the opportunity to join the Van Leer team looking into the economics curriculum, but refused. “I do not believe it is the role of any committee to determine the content of what is taught in university classes,” he says emphatically. “The true meaning of ‘academic freedom’ is that no one can tell a lecturer what he should be teaching when he stands in front of a class.”
That, however, does not mean that Rubinstein does not have opinions on the matter, or that he is shy about expressing them.
He agrees that it is difficult to define what an economist is, because, he says, there simply is no “profession” that can be termed being an economist – rather, economics is a “body of knowledge that can be learned and mastered,” which is not the same as a profession.
If the economics BA must be retained, says Rubinstein, it should teach much more than the theoretical and technical subjects. “I am a theoretician myself,” points out Rubinstein, “but we already teach too much economics in undergraduate economics programs. We need to give the students an education that includes more classes from the humanities, with an emphasis on history and an understanding of economic ideologies. In effect, the curriculum should teach politics, philosophy and economics.
Part of the problem is that it is difficult to find people who are fully qualified to teach the history of economic ideas and having it taught by someone who is not qualified could be worse than not teaching it at all.”
Rubinstein has also looked into the possibility that the current economics curriculum indoctrinates students into a particular way of thinking. In a paper he published in 2006, entitled “A Skeptic’s Comment on the Study of Economics,” he reported on a survey he conducted among two groups of undergraduate economics students and four groups of students in mathematics, law, philosophy and business administration. The main survey question involved a conflict between profit maximization and the welfare of the workers who would be fired to achieve it. Significant differences were found between the groups, and Rubinstein argued in the paper that “the overly mathematical methods used to teach economics encourage students to lean towards profit maximization.”
He now says, however, that that research did not distinguish between indoctrination and the possibility that the economics students were “self-selected,” meaning that those who choose to study economics might be predisposed to thinking in a particular way. “My guess is that in the Israeli case self-selection is the major effect,” Rubinstein tells The Report.
At the same time, Rubinstein regards as “catastrophic” any suggestion that more “practical, job-market” classes be added to the curriculum. “The role of the university is not to be a vocational school,” he says. “The university does not train carpenters and plumbers, nor does it ‘produce’ economists.
Job market skills can be learned on the job, and the university does not need to teach its students how to work the stock market.
What students should be provided with by the time they graduate are the tools for thinking, for dealing with abstract concepts and knowing how to reason well when contending with them.”
MANUEL TRAJTENBERG, WHO is, like Rubinstein, a professor of economics at Tel Aviv University and is also the chairman of the Planning and Budgeting Committee of the Council for Higher Education, agrees that “there is no way to learn enough to become ‘an economist’ in three years of studies for the BA.
There is simply too much material to master.”
He is keenly aware, however, of constraints both in the current curriculum and in the composition of economics faculties that mitigate against major changes.
“Theoretical economics is very strong in Israeli academia. That was not planned that way, but that is the case,” says Trajtenberg.
“There is no trade-off between theoretical studies and studying actual issues of importance.
In physics and chemistry, there is a distinction made between those conducting experimental studies and theoreticians. But they do agree that they are all studying the same phenomena. For some reason, in Israel a disconnect has developed between the subjects taught in theoretical courses and practical issues. We need to ‘put economics back into the study of economics.’ Every student should be asked, or ask himself, what lessons were learned today that are related to the real world, even if those lessons are conducted using the most complicated and difficult mathematical models. There are many concrete questions that can and must be studied using the theoretical and mathematical models.”
With regards to adding more “humanities- orientated” courses to the economics curriculum, Trajtenberg says, “perhaps we do not have the luxury of being able to teach courses on the philosophical foundations of economics. But we are not serving the students well if we do not teach them economic history. There is no such thing as ahistorical economics. We cannot have students who know nothing of the Great Depression of the 1930s. We may not be able to go back to studying the history of economics in the Roman Empire, but we certainly must teach economic history since the inception of the Industrial Revolution.”
Zvi Eckstein, deputy governor of the Bank of Israel and also a professor of economics at Tel Aviv University, says that in his opinion economics history can be incorporated into current coursework in economics.
“Look at any leading undergraduate textbook in economics in the US, and you will see real-life examples and historical references in every chapter, even the most theoretical chapters,” points out Eckstein. “In my opinion, instead of separate courses on economic history and thought, we should give the students the history within the current courses that we teach. If we are teaching a class on inflation, there is no reason we cannot include a slide showing the inflation level in the country from the 1970s to today.”
As for what one should expect of graduates of an economics program, Eckstein says that at minimum they “must learn how to write policy papers, with action items, whether they are asked to analyze problems at the level of firms or the national level.
They need to be able to identify what are the important questions to ask on issues such as, say, the minimum wage, and to know what has been said on the subject, and come up with a coherent answer to the relevant questions.”
Eckstein disagrees with Rubinstein’s suggestion that the economics BA, in its current format, be virtually erased. “Economics is an academic subject that should get equal access for students as any other field,” Eckstein tells The Report. “The contribution of economics to social science is substantial enough to be included in any program related to this subject.”
AVNER DE SHALIT, DEAN OF Humanities and professor of political science at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, who mainly writes and teaches about equality, democracy, human rights and environmental politics, has noticed what he regards as a deficiency in economics teaching after he played a key role in founding the Politics, Philosophy and Economics program at Hebrew University.
While teaching a class that included several students from the economics department, he noticed to his surprise that they had never before been exposed to the writings of economists John Kenneth Galbraith, Friedrich Hayek, and Amatrya Sen (the last two Nobel prize winners in economics).
“How can one understand Reaganomics without having read Hayek?” he asks. “I am not questioning the need for technical depth in economics research. I am asking what sort of person is undertaking that research. That is why the mathematics are not sufficient. We need to produce graduates who have been enlightened, in the fullest sense of that word.”
De Shalit thinks that Rubinstein’s idea “that students should have a broad BA and then specialize in disciplines like economics” is a nice idea, but adds that “I am not sure I agree. In general, it would have been wonderful if we had a BA which is very broad, along the lines of the American ‘liberal arts’ BA. But, unfortunately, our students come to the university when they are 22 or so years old, and many of them cannot afford to take both a BA and an MA.”
That, he adds, does not mean that there are not changes that are needed in the teaching of undergraduate economics. For De Shalit, the separation that has developed between highly specialized and technical economics teaching and the political and social implications of economics is what needs the greatest attention in the curriculum. “Students must be taught about the relationships between economics and politics,” he concludes, “because economics is not politically neutral, nor is it politically autonomous. Pretending that it is completely independent of politics is a disservice to the students.”