Student Essay Competition: Winning essay 2008

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What makes the best learning experience for you in economics?

James Pickering, Oriel College, Oxford
First prize in the Economics Network's student essay competition 2008

Economics is, to many, an anomaly. An arts-science hybrid, bred from debate and disagreements by thinkers who, though great, gave us grandiose ideas that often only the intellectual could understand, and were frequently disavowed when disproved by events in the real world.

To any person uninterested in the discipline, it would seem, perhaps not without reason, absurd to study such a discipline so comprehensively as academics do, a discipline that is ever changing and often fails to explain or help avoid the many ups and downs in economic reality. But this is one of the things that draws me to the discipline, and it is the full understanding and exploitation of this element of economics that I feel makes it one of the most rewarding and exciting of studies.

One could make an allusion to the study and practice of medicine: the micro- and macro-economy is the patient, the body upon which the students study and observe before being let loose into the operating theatre as graduates, to each have a go at tweaking something here or there, as economic diagnosticians or surgeons, practitioners or specialists. Like the human body, the economy is an intensely complex structure, being the product of human civilisation and society, and when brought in for treatment, or just a routine check-up (as happens every day in the press, on the internet, in daily broadcasts and statistics) cannot be healed, improved or understood simply and immediately. Even if the precise problem or treatment necessary is clear and understood, nothing can be done about it without prior knowledge of the way the whole works.

Economics is a relatively young science; but medicine was once a young science too, and as a student of economics, I cannot help but feel to be in a great position, not only because I can understand the subject, but because I can explore, theorise and develop into an economist, an individual with the power to influence and comprehend the complexities of the world in which we all operate. But the very ability, through the system of degrees and courses, to look at the subject and recognise the existence of and basic operations of the macro- or micro-economy is not enough. One of the things that struck me during my university interviews was the way prospective students of the course split into various economic camps: some were convinced monetarists, new-classicals, Keynesians or otherwise. But though convicted, the inevitable debate that ensued quickly showed up flaws in their beliefs and preconceived ideas. Naturally, once I began the course, I soon discovered how the very study of the discipline challenges my preconceived ideas, then introduces arguments and counterarguments that force one to mentally debate and analyse each topic in probably the most testing way outside of pure philosophy.

"When a text book or academic paper does not take matters for granted, but instead expands on the themes presented by way of investigation and questioning, then economics achieves its full potential to engage and enthral."

This is what makes the best learning experience: not a simple conveyance of the basic principles and ideas, not a good solution to every problem or the revealing of every analogy and rigorous testing. These can all be important factors, but what makes the best learning experience is the use of these in such a way as to challenge one's understanding of the topic or subject, forcing one not to swallow given information, but to explore the scenery of the discipline and discover the facts and theories. One cannot ignore the basics of consumer theory, producer theory, welfare economics or the other key themes underpinning the subject, but it is the application of the principles to explore and solve real problems and question the theory behind the facts that makes the study of economics worthwhile.

It is the occasional failure to do this that is a source of occasional disillusionment or irritation in such a study. The few complaints that I have regarding the topic are most usually to do with a the fact that set texts or required investigations do not sufficiently challenge, and achieve the effect of a dull history book, whereby the concepts and problems of economics are laid bare and simple, and not elaborated, analysed or questioned. But when a text book or academic paper does not take matters for granted, but instead expands on the themes presented by way of investigation and questioning, then economics achieves its full potential to engage and enthral. Even better, when a government policy or statistic or economist presents an observation contrary to a prevailing theory, for then debate is not just sparked among the economic intelligentsia, but also in the mind of the student, who must then question and investigate in order to attain, to use a horribly overused expression, the 'next level' of education- beyond mere understanding, to full comprehension of a theme and the pros and cons, assents and dissents. To use John Kenneth Galbraith's terminology , it is the questioning of the conventional wisdom on a subject that engenders progress, as much in a degree course as in the real world.

A decent text book or course will explain a topic. A good one will explain that topic and then show examples, increasing understanding and comprehension. But what makes the best text book or course, and concurrently the best learning experience as a whole is one that not only lays down the principles, the histories and the known facts, but also draws them out like elastic, stretching and kneading them into a malleable example, then proffers enquiries and issues, interrogating each theme until it could fight its case in court. But it will not just proffer them; it will lay them in paths deviating from the original source, so that the lazy student will be unfulfilled, and the inquisitive student will be forced to follow such paths in order to satisfy the questions begged of them. Thus it is that the best learning experience is formed, whereby one is not drip-fed facts, problems and statistics, but must take what is learnt and seek expansion of the concepts and ideas in order to provide what can truly be called an education and an experience.

Read more student opinions in our national surveys of economics students.

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