Monday, October 19, 2009

Economics In Middle School

Recently I've been reading bits and pieces of a few middle school textbooks on Civics and Economics. I'm sure at least a few economists think it is a good idea to begin teaching economics earlier in the educational life of our kids. After all, there seem to have been many surveys that suggest the level of economic literacy is pretty darn low. So, let's start earlier to help our citizens become economically literate. But, perhaps it is also possible that what gets taught reduces economic literacy. Consider the following from one of those middle school textbooks:
In order to make a profit, people need to provide a good or service. In order to provide a good or service, they need resources. As you know, however, resources are not unlimited. As a result, businesses and individuals must compete for the resources they need. This competition eventually affects everyone, not just business owners. In time, it affects the prices we pay for the goods we want.

One result of the competition for these resources is scarcity. Scarcity is the lack of a particular resource. When a resource becomes scarce, it is harder for producers to obtain. Products made with that resource also become more difficult to obtain. As a result, the prices for these items usually rise.
I have to say that in all my years of teaching I don't think I've ever said any thing like this to my students. Oh, on the face of it, the words written here do sound a bit like economics, and I suppose they do sound a bit like things I have talked with my students about, especially in a course in microeconomic principles. But, there are aspects of what is written above that concern me.

So, what do you think? Could the quotation above tend to encourage our middle school students to misunderstand the nature of the real world?

UPDATE 10-24: I like the comments by both Kari and Casey, and Casey comes close to my response when I read the quoted passage. The textbook is suggesting that competition leads to scarcity. Of course, this is not a lesson that comes from the study of economics. Scarcity is a given. As Casey points out, competition through the market process mitigates or lessens the impact of scarcity in our lives. So, the lesson told in this quote is pretty much just the opposite of the lessons learned from economics. In addition, if we look again at the first paragraph quoted, there is a suggestion that competition affects our individual lives. This is surely the case. But, when you look at both paragraphs together, this textbook seems to suggest that competition affects our lives in a bad way. This of course is not true. At least, it is not true if economists understand at least something about how the world works. Competition within the market process is one part of the explanation for the wonderful material prosperity we enjoy today, and as Casey suggests, without that material prosperity far, far fewer people would live on this earth today. Thus, I am concerned that the lessons suggested by this quotation may well encourage our middle school students to misunderstand the nature of the real world.


Kari Sullivan said...
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Kari Sullivan said...

I don't have enough context to be sure, but this quote seems to imply that rising prices are a result of competition and capitalism. There's just something about the tone that doesn't strike me as particularly neutral. As you might say, it sounds a little more normative than positive.

Would a middle school student pick up on this from reading it? I'm not sure. But would a teacher pick up on it and alter his or her teaching? I think that's pretty likely in some cases and much more potentially damaging.

I know I'm being a grumpy old libertarian here, but I also really object to civics and economics being taught together, especially at public schools. I feel like we're on a slippery slope to economics being placed under the umbrella of government or political science completely.

Casey Hays said...

Both of the Middle School textbook quotes you've asked us to comment on are troubling because of the decidedly mercantilist worldview they imply as fact. It's all looked at from perspective that if someone is winning, someone else must be losing. The reality instead is scarcity exists, with or without competition, or even mankind altogether. Competition instead serves to bring progressively greater and greater amounts of utility to individuals using less and less of the needed resource. This is why in spite of having the same Earth feed only the 10s of millions of people it could hundreds of years ago, it can feed billions now.