Back in my day -- the Discolithic 1970s (when us kids in elementary school were singing "another brick in the wall" without quite grokking the whole Pink Floyd message) -- nobody was teaching us about "economics." Not a class. Not a chapter in the history textbook. Sure, we learned about the Great Depression, but it was not in any sense an "economics" event, rather a historical event.
It was not until I was well into college that I took my first course in economics. Hoping to distinguish myself completely from my father, I decided to major in Econ, only to learn (with some real horror) a year later that economics was his major as well in college. Sometimes, destiny just won't let you go.
So how is elementary economics taught today? It was with some interest that my 13-year old came home and told me that he was studing for his first economics test - a mini-course in social science. I asked if I could skim his notes and see how the subject was taught. Wow. What an eye-opener:
Lesson 1: The Great Depression. The evil Republican Herbert Hoover and his conservative policies caused the Great Depression. Only when FDR was elected President was the evil rooted out, government spending boosted the economy, and civilization saved. (I'm paraphrasing ... slightly)
I worry that this personal anecdote is all-too-common. It was clearly the case of a teacher imposing their worldview as my son did not have a textbook or anything "official," just notes from the blackboard. But that made me even more disappointed - why is the school not using objective resource materials from the National Council on Economics Education? The more I looked over his notes and reviewed the homework questions, the more upset I got. I started explaining the right answers, which he pointed out would be marked incorrect by his teacher, and I said to him, "Son, I don't care if you flunk this class. It is more important to learn the truth than to regurgitate what will receive marks from this teacher." In the end, we compromised. He learned the truth about markets to my satisfaction, and I taught him how to answer questions in way that would please his teacher just for the test.
So, how would you teach the very first class on economics to a young mind? That question has been haunting me for a while now. After some careful deliberation, I am pretty sure I would start with a lesson on the "Economics of the Cave Man." I already have the pictograms in mind. The lesson would have stasis versus growth as the moral of the story. You can stay in your own little cave and eke out a subsistence life ... or you can walk over to the next valley and trade. Once you trade, you specialize, and once you specialize, you grow productivity. No zero sum, kids.
A Closer Look at the NCEE
A first glance at the NCEE shows a smart, simple approach to introducing virgin students to the building blocks of economic reasoning, mental models, and consensus worldview. That said, I am appalled by the treatment of growth. By following the conventional micro / macro ladder, economic growth is buried in the 10th of 11 section, Macro Unit 5: Lesson 4. Could it be more obscure? Here's the summary from NCEE's Table of Contents:
Macroeconomics Unit 5: Lesson 4 - Economic Growth
In this lesson, the students learn the main sources of long-term economic or real GDP growth and the policies that governments might use to increase economic growth. The students should be aware that there is a difference between the short-term fluctuations in real GDP that result from the business cycle and the long-run growth in real GDP discussed here. Activity 47 emphasizes the alternative measures of output growth and incorporates long-run economic growth into the aggregate demand and aggregate supply models. The activity also brings in the production possibilities curve discussed at the beginning of the course.
I am trying to think of analogy of why this summary is problematic. Here it is. You could create a whole semester's worth of material on biology without explaining that in the real world, plants and animals grow. The static approach misses the essence. I know, I know ... that's a major improvement on politically oriented indoctrination, and I like the NCEE materials a lot. But we can do better than this.