How well done is Columbia’s Principles of Economics class?

As a freshman here at Columbia University, I came in excited to learn from such a renowned department. I wasn’t sure what exactly I was coming here to study, but I knew I wanted to do something related to analyzing pressing economic issues. In high school, I became interested in current news and books on random economic issues, such as Scott Carney’s The Red Market. I was sure that I would major in economics, and probably pair it with another social discipline like anthropology or history. To do this, I knew I was required to take the introductory economics course, ECON UN1105, Principles of Economics. Excited, I enrolled and walked into my first Columbia class (of course it was in the iconic Havemeyer 309 room). 

Having taken AP Macroeconomics, I was familiar with many of the theories, but disappointed in how they seemed very disconnected from the real world. I expected that at a renowned institution such as Columbia, there would be more critical engagement and thinking on current issues. I assumed too soon. 

This introductory course relies on assumptions that seldom match economic reality. It unquestioningly leans into the idea that everyone in a market is a rational, free actor with the ability to make decisions. We were taught theories of supply and demand, perfect competition, and that the free market can correct itself. I know it is an introductory class, and I cannot expect the most from it, but it seemed extremely disconnected.

I quickly learned that if I wanted to do anything interdisciplinary, this was sadly not the department for me. All of the classes that I found interesting, such as Political Economy, Economic History of the United States, and Economics of Education were stuck behind semesters of calculus and game theory.  I took calculus at the same time as ECON UN1105, and I will admit that is not my strong suit. Most of these classes are small seminars for graduate students, which also contribute to their inaccessibility. I decided to pivot and spend my precious time here as an undergrad in classes that feel more intellectually engaging. If you look at other departments, it says a lot that there is little interdisciplinary study and interaction with the economics department. 

There have been two major periods of economic uncertainty in my life, the 2008 financial crisis and the pandemic, both of which deeply affected my family and millions of other Americans. There was very little mention of how economics actually impacts the daily lives of people, which in my opinion should be the entire point of the course. But it starts to make sense when you consider the makeup of many economics classes. When you ask an econ major about their aspirations in life, they rarely seem inclined to use the field to understand and employ these theories for the bettering of human knowledge or any noble pursuit. They’re often working to become a finance bro, which is fine—not everyone can be an idealist—and I understand the appeal of wanting to use your opportunity here to make money. 

What bothered me was seeing how obviously wealthy many of these students were. The concentration of Apple Pencils and designer bags was much higher in my econ class than in any other. As a student not at all from that background, it prompted me to ask why.

The reality is that many of these students here to study economics already come from immense wealth, and are studying to become consultants or hedge fund managers. This is not the case for everyone, but out of the five or so economics majors that I am friends with, none of them are doing it to pursue and understand the field of modern economics. Any “interest” in economics as a major comes from their ambitious pursuit to get to Wall Street, not to advance the field. This is the case for most economics majors you talk to, so it is no wonder why the department teaches the way it does. All these friends of mine are freshmen, and two already have internships lined up (through a parent’s company of course).

Maybe I am just bitter that I’m not a nepotism baby, but it makes sense that the Principles of Economics class was full of future finance bros and not economists. In my opinion, the class doesn’t do much to challenge students to think about the economic realities of the world. Of course, assumptions are useful for a 1000 class, but my problem lies in the fact that these assumptions are too far from reality to seem useful. Market-capitalist assumptions rarely align with reality. We spent a day on monopolies, and then one on externalities, which I truly appreciated my lecturer for teaching.

However, the analysis of externalities in my opinion did not reflect how pressing these issues were. A major issue is climate change, but the way we treated that in our discussion on negative externalities was that it was a cost of creating business that could be mitigated by the “invisible hand” free market. As we know from decades of greenwashing and misinformation from fossil fuel corporations, this is not an issue where the free market can simply correct itself. Individual people are not at all rational actors who can make free choices. By teaching impressionable students these disconnected theories, I think we are doing them, and society as a whole, a disservice. 

I truly do not think society needs more finance bros. It honestly makes me sad to see students who are incredibly smart focus on a discipline so narrow-minded. As a wonderful article by Eleanor Clemans-Cope in the Daily Princetonian outlines, this is not just a Columbia issue, and it doesn’t have to be like this. “At UC Berkeley, introductory economics includes three weeks on market successes — enough to get the concept of markets and equilibrium — and ten weeks on market failures.” In the face of unprecedented economic challenges, Columbia must teach students more nuance. According to a report from the Provost, Economics is the second most popular major (behind political science), with 102 graduates in 2022. If so many of our students are supposed to go off and hold political and economic power, they should be taught accurate and relevant ideas. 

Reflecting on my experience in the class, I feel like I understand better how corporations and governments approach economics in a perfect world, but not how it truly impacts people. My experience with the economics department here at Columbia is that it uses market-capitalist theories paired with calculus to mask itself as a true science. Economics does not at all exist solely in a theoretical vacuum, and I think it is dangerous to teach that way. 

For the record, I got an A in the class, so I understand these concepts, and I am not here to express a personal grudge against my professor. Rather, I am extremely disappointed in my encounter with how economics is taught at Columbia. ECON UN1105 exists in a fantasy world of neoclassical assumptions and rigid graphs. Economic teaching to Columbia undergraduates is lacking in encouraging critical economic thinking and teaching beyond the confines of free-market capitalist dogmas. These are brilliant students, and we should be engaging with these important ideas more critically. For the sake of students ready to create better policy and research, the way economics is taught at Columbia must adapt. 

Imagie via Columbia SIPA