In a recent editorial in the New York Times, Harvard economist and former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, N. Gregory Mankiw provides some answers to the question “what kind of foundation is needed to understand and be prepared for the modern economy?” Presumably, what he means by “modern economy” is life after college. Professor Mankiw suggests that students of all ages learn something about the following subjects: economics, statistics, finance, and psychology. I read this with interest and doing so made me think of my own list, which is rather different than the one offered by Mankiw. I will take up the instrumental challenge, making a list of subjects that I think will be useful in an instrumental sense — i.e., in helping graduates become successful in the world of the twenty-first century. In no way do I mean to suggest that students can not be successful if they don’t follow this plan for, like Mankiw, I agree that students should ignore advice as they see fit. Education is about discovery as much as anything and there is much to one’s education that transcends instrumentality — going to college is not simply about preparing people to enter “the modern economy,” even if it is a necessary predicate for success in it.
People should probably know something about economics. However, I’m not convinced that what most undergraduate students are taught in their introductory economics classes is the most useful thing to learn. Contemporary economics is taught as an axiomatic discipline. That is, a few foundational axioms (i.e., a set of primitive assumptions that are not proved but considered self-evident and necessary) are presented and from these, theorems can be derived. Theorems can then be logically proven by recourse to axioms or other already-proven theorems. Note that this is not about explaining the world around us. It is really an exercise in rigorously defining normative rules for how people should behave and what the consequences of such behavior would be, even if actual people don’t follow such prescriptions. Professor Mankiw has written a widely used textbook in Introductory Economics. In the first chapter of this book, we see this axiomatic approach on full display. We are told not unreasonable things like “People Face Trade-Offs” or “The Cost of Something is What You Give Up to Get It” or “Rational People Think at the Margin.” I couldn’t agree more with the idea that people face trade-offs, but I nonetheless think there are an awful lot of problematic aspects to these axioms. Consider the following paragraph (p. 5)
Another trade-off society faces is between efficiency and equality. Efficiency means that society is getting the maximum benefits from its scarce resources. Equality means that those benefits are distributed uniformly among society’s members. In other words, efficiency refers to the size of the economic pie, and equality refers to how the pie is divided into individual slices.
Terms like “efficiency” and “maximum benefits” are presented as unproblematic, as is the idea that there is a necessary trade-off between efficiency and equality. Because it is an axiom, apparently contemporary economic theory allows no possibility for equality in efficient systems. Inequality is naturalized and thereby legitimized. It seems to me that this should be an empirical question, not an axiom. In his recent book, The Bounds of Reason: Game Theory and the Unification of the Behavioral Sciences, Herb Gintis provides a very interesting discussion of the differences between two highly formalized (i.e., mathematical) disciplines, physics and economics. Gintis notes, “By contrast [to the graduate text in quantum mechanics], the microeconomics text, despite its beauty, did not contain a single fact in the whole thousand page volume. Rather, the authors build economic theory in axiomatic fashion, making assumptions on the basis of their intuitive plausibility, their incorporation of the ‘stylized facts’ of everyday life, or their appeal to the principles of rational thought.”
If one is going to learn economics, “the study of how society manages its scarce resources” — and I do believe people should — I think one should (1) learn about how resources are actually managed by real people and real institutions and (2) learn some theory that focuses on strategic interaction. A strategic interaction occurs when the best choice a person can make depends upon what others are doing (and vice-versa). The formal analysis of strategic interactions is done with game theory, a field typically taught in economics classes but also found in political science, biology, and, yes, even anthropology. Alas, this is generally considered an advanced topic, so you’ll have to go through all the axiomatic nonsense to get to the really interesting stuff.
OK, that was a bit longer than I anticipated. Whew. On to the other things to learn…
Learn something about sociology. Everyone could benefit by understanding how social structures, power relations, and human stocks and flows shape the socially possible. Understanding that social structure and power asymmetries constrain (or enable) what we can do and even what we think is powerful and lets us ask important questions not only about our society but of those of the people with whom we sign international treaties, or engage in trade, or wage war. Some of the critical questions that sociology helps us ask include: who benefits by making inequality axiomatic? Does the best qualified person always get the job? Is teen pregnancy necessarily irrational? Do your economic prospects depend on how many people were born the same year as you were? How does taste reflect on one’s position in society?
People should definitely learn some statistics. Here, Professor Mankiw and I are in complete agreement.
Learn about people other than those just like you. The fact that we live in an increasingly global world is rapidly becoming the trite fodder of welcome-to-college speeches by presidents, deans, and other dignitaries. Of course, just because it’s trite doesn’t make it any less true, and despite the best efforts of homogenizing American popular and consumer culture, not everyone thinks or speaks like us or has the same customs or same religion or system of laws or healing or politics. I know; it’s strange. One might learn about other people in an anthropology class, say, but there are certainly other options. If anthropology is the chosen route, I would recommend that one choose carefully, making certain that the readings for any candidate anthropology class be made up of ethnographies and not books on continental philosophy. Come to grips with some of the spectacular diversity that characterizes our species. You will be better prepared to live in the world of the twenty-first century.
Take a biology class. If the twentieth century was the century of physics, the twenty-first century is going to be the century of biology. We have already witnessed a revolution in molecular biology that began around the middle of the twentieth century and continued to accelerate throughout its last decades and into the twenty-first. Genetics is creeping into lots of things our parents would not have even imagined: criminology, law, ethics. Our decisions about our own health and that of our loved ones’ will increasingly be informed by molecular genetic information. People should probably know a thing or two about DNA. I shudder at popular representations of forensic science and worry about a society that believes what it sees on CSI somehow represents reality. I happen to think that when one takes biology, one should also learn something about organisms, but this isn’t always an option if one is going to also learn about DNA.
Finally, learn to write. Talk about comparative advantage! I am continually blown away by poor preparation that even elite students receive in written English. If you can express ideas in writing clearly and engagingly, you have a skill that will carry you far. Write as much as you possibly can. Learn to edit. I think editing is half the problem with elite students — they write things at the last minute and expect them to be brilliant. Doesn’t work that way. Writing is hard work and well written texts are always well edited.