The Public Purpose of Economics -- The Education of Students
Our primary purpose as academic economists is to teach students the basic principles of economics so that they may become informed participants within the democratic process of collective choice over public policy. Economics has the same ontological status as physics or any other natural science, though we arrive at that knowledge through different epistemological procedures. Both the denial of that nature of economic science, and the effort to mimic the methods of the natural sciences has created confusion and discrediting of the science of economics. This unfortunate fate of economic science was best understood in the writings of Carl Menger, Ludwig von Mises and F. A. Hayek, though others most notably Frank Knight, Lionel Robbins, Fritz Machlup and James Buchanan understood the unique epistemological position of economics and political economy yet the scientific status of economics.
This has been a busy fall for me traveling to give talks and attend conferences. I am not done yet. But I believe I have visited two outstanding examples of teaching and research centers for economics that place a priority on the public purpose of economics. The facutly associated are all outstanding teachers of economics, and this is evident in the excitement and engagement of their students. In both instances I presented a talk about my book, Living Economics: Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow (2012), and the students filled the seats and they formed lines after for me to sign their books and for them to tell me about how their professors had excited them about this or that issue in economics and public policy. Some have expressed interest in economic theory, some in puzzles in economic history, and others on a particular policy issues. They roam intellectually, but totally engaged and willing to do the hard work of studying. They are so hungry to learn. They also have a wide range of aspirations from academic to entrepreneurial to political/public policy. It is very exciting to see young people with a purpose and a desire to do the hard work necessary.
I am sure there are many such initiatives underway at colleges and universities. But the two schools I have visited that stand out to me are the Center for Entrepreneurship and Political Economy at Hampden-Sydney College, and the Manuel Johnson Center for Political Economy at Troy University. I encourage you to look at these programs, to visit the websites of the various faculty involved, and to look at the array of student programs they have conducted. In both instances not only did I give my public talk, I also spoke at their regular reading groups, meet with students separately and had the chance to engage in many informal discussions with the students and faculty. This is face-to-face education at its best, and this is not going to be replaced with online education. It is too important for the process of utilizing educaiton as a tool for transforming these students lives for the better.
There is reason for hope and change in our society, but you will not find that on TV or in DC, but instead in these young people who are absorbing the basic teachings of economic science and learning how to apply that knowledge to understand their world and change their own lives to find purpose and pursue goals and achieve great things.