A Bar Conversation

Over the weekend I attended the Fifth Annual Economics Teaching Workshop, this one called Targeting Economic Literacy in the Classroom. The workshop is sponsored by UNC-W and the University of Richmond, as well as McGraw-Hill/Irwin and Prentice Hall. It’s always an excellent workshop–Good sessions put together by thoughtful teachers. I never go without getting a handful of practical suggestions that I’m anxious to try out. This year’s speakers included Bill Goffe (SUNY-Oswego & Resources for Economists fame) Gail Hoyt (University of Kentucky), Craig Richardson (Salem College), and Mike Salemi (UNC-Chapel Hill and the AEA Committee on Economic Education).

As is often the case, several of us ended up in the hotel bar after dinner. Among other things, we debated a comment made by David Collander several years ago at the same workshop. In talking about the utility of the economic theory taught in most intermediate courses, Dave described it as “mental calisthenics.” Our point of contention at the bar was whether or not Dave meant that such theory was a waste of time to teach.

After giving it some thought, here’s my interpretation of Collander, or at least my view on the question. Ten or more years ago I was asked why I still taught the IS-LM model in intermediate macro, given that thinking economists no longer believe that it adequately describes the way the world works (this last phrase gives the flavor of the question I was asked). My answer was that I still taught IS-LM because it was a very useful sort of exercise for the students to undertake. It’s a straightforward, though not simple, model with unambiguous solutions that uses math that is well within the capabilities of my students. In short, doing such mental calisthenics is useful as a teaching tool, not necessarily as indicative of economic truth, but rather because it illustrates very clearly the type of analytic thinking done by economists that students need to learn through much practice. This is what I think Dave meant by mental calisthenics.

Incidentally, the workshop also reminded me strongly of the web 2.0 notion that knowledge isn’t merely content but also connections. I touched on this in my posting yesterday. I had strong sense that what I know is not just what’s in my head, but also what’s in the heads of all the colleagues I touch base with at conferences. This particular group was an exceptional one in that regard.

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