Critical look at Leaving Cert economics syllabus long overdue.

By Chris Johns, Irish Times.

Somebody had the bright idea, in 2000, to review the Leaving Certificate economics syllabus. No doubt this was motivated in part by the fact that not much had changed since the subject was introduced in 1969. By that I mean there hadn’t been much change to the syllabus; economics, of course, had gone through one or two intellectual revolutions, insufficient, it seems, to alter how it was – is – taught to Irish teenagers.

While there are timeless economic verities, it is a stretch to think nothing noteworthy has happened in the field over the last near half century. To be precise, 46 years: that 2000 review didn’t see much action until 2007, when its recommendations were put on ice, apparently because of austerity.

So we still operate with the 1969 syllabus. Another review, according to the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) website, is due to see another report issued next year.

It would be too easy to poke fun at all of this. But that would be unfair to students and teachers. There have no doubt been plenty of excellent examples of individual efforts to keep up to date. Nobody has to stick exclusively to the syllabus – but we all know the game that has to be played to get the required points.

Massive criticism

It is also true that the teaching of economics – at all levels – has come in for massive criticism in a number of countries, not least in the wake of the financial crisis.

How should economics be taught in schools? As with all subjects, it depends on the objectives. The 1969 goals aimed to “give students an understanding of economic activities, patterns and principles . . . develop the capacity to apply these principles . . . and to achieve critical thought . . . develop an interest in economics to aid citizenship . . . to provide a suitable basis for the further study of economics”.

Now, there is a lot going on here, a lot to be applauded: anything that teaches how to think and how to become worthy citizens is surely a good thing. Whether economics can do these things is another question. Whether Leaving Certificate economics achieves these and its other objectives is, I think, rather doubtful.

Deeper questions about the role of education and the form it takes in its wider context are raised by all this. The syllabus revision that was never quite achieved was motivated in part by inspectors noticing rote learning as opposed to thinking.

That, of course, has been apparent in many other subjects. But the original aim of teaching children how to think – how to learn – was sound. The biggest shock of entry into third level is the realisation that we are not taught but rather, for the most part, we teach ourselves.

Lofty ambitions are all very well. Employers want creative thinkers, for sure. But they also want well-organised people with attention to detail. The NCCA consultation paper is dated January 2014 but refers to the process of overhauling economics education that “began in September 2014”.

Smith, Marx, Keynes

The syllabus requires study of economic history: it demands knowledge of “Smith, Marx, Keynes, etc”. I wonder how many points a student would get for similar use of “etc”.

A Nobel Prize winner who single-handedly rebuilt macroeconomics from scratch (after 1969) took his first degree in history. He then did a PhD in economics after spending a summer reading one economics text book. He was curious, knew how to think and was the consummate autodidact. His vision of economics has, in the opinion of some, led it up a blind alley. A criticism of macro is that it has become a “rogue branch of applied maths”.

An exposure to all of this would at least enhance critical-thinking skills. While it is advanced stuff it can still be explained simply. After all, you don’t need to understand the maths to appreciate the beauty and wonders of quantum mechanics.

Too much of what is taught is useless, in all senses of the term. Which is a shame, because there is so much that isn’t.