With economics a discipline in the public front-and-center, it is constantly surprising to me how many interested and smart people have a tenuous grasp of economic principles, including many public commentators. Let me caveat this by saying that I am not an economist. I was, however, fortunate enough to have taken courses taught by excellent economists who were also excellent teachers.
Given how powerful a tool economics is for understanding the world around us is, it strikes me as an enormous omission to leave economics out of the required curriculum for K-12 education. If I had my druthers, I would teach economics alongside reading, writing, and arithmetic, from kindergarten onwards. Yes, kindergarten. I know many kindergarteners who are able to understand the concept of money even if they can’t add. Start with the basics of money, then trade, pricing, supply and demand, comparative advantage, etc. - the logic of economics, then the math. Not the fancy Excel models with misguided assumptions, but the math that underlies the hard logic that makes economics such a powerful tool. Of the social sciences, economics is the most usefully predictive (though as we have recently seen, far from perfect).
Imagine a world where the average person is literate in economics. What different conversations we would have. Now you might argue that there are 40 million functionally illiterate people in the United States, and how can we teach economics when we can’t teach reading? The answer is that we can teach reading, we’ve been teaching reading for quite some time now, and we know how to do so inside-out. The reason why some people are taught reading, and others aren’t, is politics. How we get great teachers into classrooms consistently – in my mind, 80% of what a great education is about – is a different question than what we should teach in classrooms.
What we should teach in classrooms, in my mind, are subjects that 1) provide a basic understanding of the world, 2) develop the social skills needed to function in a connected society, 3) are useful in later productivity / employment, 4) contribute positively to individual quality of life, and/or 5) create the informed citizenry needed to support a democracy. Economics scores highly on all these characteristics except for #2, and even if you penalize the subject substantially for inducing people to tell economics jokes at parties, there still remains a strong argument. After all, it’s better to have people telling economics jokes than try to run a democracy without a citizenry that could understand them.