Demystifying the ‘Dismal Science’

By Joan Dye Gussow

Introducing Economics: A Critical Guide for Teaching

By Mark H. Maier and Julie A. Nelson
M.E. Sharpe, 2007,
Paperback, $24.95, 229 pages.

One would not normally pick up a book called Introducing Economics with expectations for an exciting evening. As economist Robert Heilbroner is reported to have remarked: “Mathematics has given economics rigor, but alas, also mortis.” So the good news is that Introducing Economics manages to be both rigorous, and un-deadly.

This is a book meant for high school teachers assigned to teach economics. Although the subject is relatively new to the high school curriculum, Maier and Nelson note, most states now mandate some economics teaching in the high school curriculum, and half of all high school graduates take an economics course. How do their teachers learn the content, since many of them would never have had a course in economics themselves?

There are, of course, textbooks, and an abundance of supplementary materials available to help teachers out, in print and online. But “[M]ost available textbooks are slanted toward free market, small-government solutions,” Maier and Nelson observe, and many of the available supplementary materials “are sponsored by groups with a vested interest in standard neoclassical economics.” This slant is far too limiting, the authors believe, to fully address the kinds of questions economics tries to answer.

But this book is not designed simply to argue with neoclassical economics; it is intended to expand the vision of the field, to introduce to those who are teaching this often dreaded subject matter the basics of other major schools of economics — entrepreneurial, Keynesian, consumer, labor, ecological and the like — in order to provide an intellectual history of the subject. Their hope is to enable teachers new to economics, or unhappy with limits of standard texts, to evaluate — and expand on — the viewpoints they encounter in these texts as well as in the National Council on Economic Education’s (NCEE) Voluntary National Content Standards. To introduce beginning economics teachers to a broader set of materials, ideas, and internet resources is to enable them to go outside standard texts and find something exciting to use in the classroom.

After an introduction that offers “A primer on Major Schools of Economics” — designed to answer the question “where did this idea come from?” — the body of the book consists of 14 chapters that take up one by one the topics found in a typical economics course, with commentaries, hints for clear teaching, and directions to resource materials for each.

Consider their handling of NCEE Standard #1 “Productive resources are limited. Therefore, people cannot have all the goods and services they want; as a result they must choose some things and give up others.” What such a formulation leaves out, the authors note, is that resources are unequally distributed to start with so that “some people get to choose between Jaguars and Maseratis, while others have to ‘choose’ between medicine and rent.” The seemingly inescapable reality that people have basic needs — like medicine and rent… and food — is given short shrift. Many neoclassical economists, they note, actually dismiss “need” as a meaningful economic concept “on the grounds that needs are subjective, whereas relative ‘wants’ for one item compared to another will be revealed in market demands.”

Or consider NCEE Standard #9. “Competition among sellers lowers costs and prices, and encourages producers to produce more of what consumers are willing and able to buy. Competition among buyers increases prices and allocates goods and services to those people who are willing and able to pay the most for them.”

Strikingly, as the authors note, the issue of market power is nowhere to be found in much teaching about “competition.” The idea that large transnational corporations can restrict competition or that unregulated competition might have social costs, are entirely missing from the NCEE standards.

In their more extended discussions of each of their topics, the authors are so thoughtful and enlightening that it is difficult to choose a single example. But here is one: “Economic Goals.” Many textbooks, the authors note, don’t even bother to “explicitly discuss the goals we would like our economics to achieve, but simply launch into discussions of consumer desires, efficiency and GDP growth.” This leaves out, among other things, survival of the human species in a time when the environment is under stress and when “15,000 children a day die worldwide from malnutrition-related diseases.” This narrow focus leaves out, as well, what should be the real goal of a functioning economy, human happiness, whose sources are not “economically” obvious when abundant evidence has made it clear that happiness is not a necessary — or perhaps even usual — consequence of simply fulfilling one’s “consumer desires” efficiently and thereby raising GDP.

Although the flow of topics is meant to reflect that of a typical course, from “What Is Economics?” through “Gross Domestic Product” and “Fiscal and Monetary Policy” to “Global Economics and Trade,” the authors urge readers not to be tied to a linear use of the book, but to zero in (using the detailed index at the back where necessary) on specific topics that seem relevant at the time. Right after the table of contents, they helpfully provide a much longer “List of Activities and Resources” arranged alphabetically from “Advertising: The Tricks of the Trade,” through “Employer Power,” to “Unemployment.” They also provide at the back of the book a selection of sources of resource material, annotated to alert readers to the biases they may encounter.

One of my dearest friends, properly tamed through her growing years by a steady dose of Catholic school, went on to a Catholic college whose sociology department was run by a Marxist nun. That’s how I would love to have learned at a vulnerable age that everything I had been taught was not necessarily true, but barring such a fortuitous combination of circumstances, one can only hope that every high school teacher in the United States assigned to teach economics — whether as a separate class or part of another — gets hold of a copy of Introducing Economics and uses its insights and resources to enrich her own thinking and that of her students. How much wiser this nation’s political debates would be if we had generations of high school graduates trained to think through the economic assumptions so many of us have been taught to live by.

Joan Dye Gussow is a writer, food grower, and Mary Swartz Rose Professor Emerita of Nutrition and Education, Teachers College, Columbia University. This review first appeared in the Kids Can Make A Difference’s Winter ’08 issue of Finding Solutions. For more information go to