Trustees | General Education

Don’t know much about the economy

DC EXAMINER   |  March 10, 2009 by Anne D. Neal

Americans may not agree about whether the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act will in fact stimulate the economy, but no one can criticize it for not stimulating discussion about the economy.

We’ve heard innumerable stories about the causes of the downturn, its ripples and repercussions on every conceivable segment of American society and how best to revive the moribund economy.

For all this economic chatter, however, a far more important question has barely been broached: Are we preparing leaders and citizens who can understand and think critically about the current crisis, or for that matter, economics in general?

On this question, a recent survey by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni of 100 leading universities reveals that even by the most basic of standards, we are failing miserably.

Only one school, the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, requires its students to take an economics class. The rest, including all the Ivies and the other state flagships, are not doing anything to ensure that their graduates are economically literate.

The ghastly statistics of the National Council on Economic Education (NCEE) should therefore come as no surprise: More than half of those surveyed do not understand what it means to say that the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has increased, and nearly two thirds do not know that in times of inflation money loses value.

As for the current mess we’re in, less than half of the respondents can identify what a sub-prime mortgage is, according to a recent survey by the Center for Economic and Entrepreneurial Literacy.

This failure of our universities to make sure that students grasp the fundamentals of a subject which is now an integral part of modern life is baffling. After all, we trade with the entire world and those representing us in government often get elected on the economic promises they make to voters.

Unfortunately, the dearth of economics requirements is part of a broader sad story, the collapse of the core curriculum. On campus after campus, critical subjects like math, science, and American history have become optional. In fact, most well-known universities don’t even demand that their English majors read Shakespeare.

Some will claim that requirements are outdated and that students should be free to decide which classes they are going to take, since they are, after all, paying for them. Yet it is fundamentally misguided to view students as consumers, classes as commodities and an education as simply a collection of courses that add up to a degree.

A college education presupposes that those who know more teach those who know less, and it aims to prepare students to become informed, engaged and productive citizens by acquainting them with certain fundamental areas of knowledge.

This means adults—administrators and faculty members—must address what students need to know rather than simply teach what they want to teach.

Economics 101 should not be just one more option among “Comparative Martial Arts Film and Literature” (Cornell University), “Digital Game Studies” (Dartmouth College), and “The History of Furniture” (University of Nebraska at Lincoln).

As for those who would put their trust in our high schools, a 2007 survey by NCEE reveals that a mere 17 states include economics as a graduation requirement, making college-level attention to this critical discipline even more essential.

Whichever way you slice it, our colleges and universities have a role to play. We support them with tax dollars and voluntary donations because we recognize their importance in educating the next generation of citizens.

They must make sure the voters and leaders of tomorrow possess the foundational knowledge necessary to make sense of a complex world and respond to future challenges. As citizens, parents, and taxpayers we should demand no less.


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