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The Rule is a Tool

David Colander is critical of what he considers the insufficiently nuanced way Mankiw presents economics to freshmen students. Mankiw’s response is here. (H/T Marginal Revolution)

Not surprisingly, I tend to side with Mankiw on this, but for a different reason.

It’s not that students know nothing about economics and therefore must be taught the basics before learning nuance.

The problem is that they have to unlearn a hyper-relative approach to the world in which everything is questioned and doubted to the point of not being able to make any useful claims about reality. The answer to everything is some version of “it depends on your point of view” or “I feel” or “perception is reality” or “maybe that’s true for you, but for me…”

The idea that no one can make useful claims to knowledge is not a nuanced view of reality. It’s a view that inhibits learning.

Of course, all knowledge claims should be subject to scrutiny. Everything we know is qualified in one way or another. But what Mankiw does well, in my opinion, is give students a window into a world where you can actually gain knowledge about how the world works. Not perfect knowledge or simple answers, but something to work with, something to predict with, something to put confidence in as a useful tool.

If Colander thinks modern students just swallow rules whole in economics class, I rather doubt he’s working with actual freshman much. My freshmen students have trouble believing that there are any rules. They have a extreme skepticism that one can make any claims that would stand up to someone who merely says, “But I don’t feel that way.”

For many of them, Mankiw’s approach is a breath of fresh air, after being constantly told that there’s nothing really to be learned, only positions to be taken based on one’s feelings about some matter or another.

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Categories: Education
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