Extended Case Study: Teaching and learning economics through cinema

Contact: Gherardo Girardi
London Metropolitan Business School, London Metropolitan University
Email:
Published February 2008
Keywords: economics, teaching and learning, cinema, literature

Introduction

In July 2006, John Sedgwick, Guglielmo Volpe and I received some funding from the Economics Network of the Higher Education Academy to develop a new module which aimed to teach economics through the arts, in particular through cinema and literature. The team benefited from John's experience in researching the economics of cinema, and from Guglielmo's expertise as a national teaching fellow.

The motivations of the project were manifold:

  • To relate the study of economics more closely to students´ lives, using real life illustrations;
  • To increase the classroom participation of non-mathematically inclined students;
  • To present the subject of economics in an aesthetically pleasing way, thus offering an alternative to mathematical elegance;
  • To treat the subject in a multidisciplinary manner, enabling students to see the link with other social sciences;
  • To present the subject in its historical context, in contrast with the present mainstream approach;
  • To present a multicultural array of films and works of literature consistent with the wide range of cultural backgrounds of London Metropolitan University´s students.

It became clear very quickly that cinema offers certain advantages over works of literature, namely that it is very popular among students and that it takes much less time to see a film than to read a novel. As a consequence, I piloted the module by showing clips of films. Since most of the films that I have in mind for the proposed module are cinematic adaptations of renown works of literature, the distinction between using films and works of literature is somewhat lessened; however, it remains, I think, important, as the two media probably appeal to rather different student audiences.

The idea of teaching economics with cinema is not new, and is practiced in some colleges in the US. The approach that is used in the US is, however, quite different from the one I am proposing. In the US, modules are usually at first year level, they present a selection of fundamental economic concepts such as opportunity cost, scarcity, demand and supply, etc. and illustrate them using films (see, for example, Let and Houser (2003)). My approach is, in a sense, the other way round: I allow the medium of cinema to inform me and to inspire me as to what economic concepts can be discussed through this medium. As a consequence, the range of topics that I cover is much wider and covers unconventional topics such as the economics of the charities, dowries and the economics of crime.

Method and syllabus

The method that I propose to follow in class is as follows. Each week, I announce a topic. Then I show clips from one or more films about that topic. Then I facilitate a debate among students, by asking questions that relate as far as possible to their lives. Finally, to sustain the discussion with some rigorous analysis, I present some related academic material, which can be either theoretical or empirical.

Here is a selection of films which I saw and found to have a suitable economic content (name of original author or film director in brackets, followed by date of release of original piece):

  1. Death of a Salesman (Arthur Miller, 1949) - Choice of profession, sense of self worth based on economic performance;
  2. Grapes of Wrath (John Steinbeck, 1939) - Property rights, migration, trade unions;
  3. Oliver Twist (Charles Dickens, 1838) - Economics of crime, economics of charities;
  4. Rogue Trader (James Dearden, 1999) /Wall Street (Oliver Stone, 1987) - Psychology of financial markets;
  5. Balkanizateur (Sotiris Goritsas, 1998) - Efficiency of capital markets;
  6. La Terra Trema (Luchino Visconti, 1948) - Poverty, risks of entrepreneurship;
  7. Mother India (Mehboob Khan, 1957) - Rural financial markets in poor countries;
  8. Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austin, 1813) - Economics of dowries, economics of inheritance.

In addition, the following are films which, according to the descriptions from various sources, appear to have a suitable economic content, but which I could not easily obtain and hence did not view:

  1. Toplo (Vladimir Yanchev, 1978) - Agency theory;
  2. The Tycoon (Pavel Lounguine, 2003) - Emergence of crime in countries in transition from communist to market economics;
  3. Ashani Sanket (Satyajit Ray, 1973) - Economics of famine.

The selection above includes films from different cultures and periods, consistently with the motivations set out in the introduction. It also reflects my belief that education should be a process of self-discovery. At present, however, we do not teach economics with such a focus in mind. For example, in mainstream labour economics modules, we assume that future earnings is the key determinant of one's choice as to whether to take up further education or not (the human capital model). This may well not be the case in reality. When I asked my labour economics students, only about 10% said that they chose to read an economics degree because it offered the prospect of an attractive wage; instead, many cited an interest in the subject. Death of Salesman, which I used in a pilot study and is described below, includes a long dialogue between two youngsters at pains to decide what choice of profession to make.

The question arises as to whether or not to include films with morally objectionable scenes: explicit violence/sex, use of drugs, contempt for the law, etc.. The reason for not including such movies seem to me to be two: (a) Some students, because of their beliefs and sensitivities, might not want to see such films; (b) Some students may, possibly unconsciously, imitate damaging role models. I asked the students what their thoughts were on this matter. The majority of undergraduate students thought that I should not worry about such issues in deciding which movies to include. The majority of postgraduate students, however, thought that I should exclude films of dubious moral quality. I decided to include all movies, but to warn students as to which might be morally objectionable, and to show only clips which did not present this problem.

Piloting the module

I piloted the module on four existing modules at London Metropolitan University, ensuring as far as possible that the content of the films I showed matched that of each module:

  1. Introduction to Macroeconomics. This is a 1st year module taken mainly by students reading economics. I showed them clips of Balkanizateur;
  2. Economics of Cinema. This is a 3rd year module taken by media studies students and taught by John Sedgwick. I showed them clips of Grapes of Wrath;
  3. Economics of Industry. This is a 3rd year module taken almost entirely by economics students. I showed them clips of Death of a Salesman;
  4. International Business Studies. This module is part of the MSc in International Business. I showed them clips of Death of a Salesman.

Each session lasted about half an hour, with 20 minutes of clips and 10 minutes of discussion.

Example of a session in class: using Death of a Salesman

In the beginning, I introduced the tragedy to the students, describing the plot, the main characters and the historical context (America in the late 1940's) (note 1). In essence, a travelling salesman called Willy makes fewer sales as he gets older. His perception of his self-worth is shattered in the process. He commits suicide hoping that many people will come to his funeral and that his family will get insurance compensation, neither of which materialize. Willy has two sons, Biff and Happy.

I selected a number of topics which I believed to be relevant to the students' lives. Here, I focus on one, namely the role of parents and society in influencing young people's choice of profession. Miller's tragedy provides the following material for debate.

Willy is disappointed with his son Biff because Biff is 34 and still does not know "who he is" (which includes not having chosen his profession) and also because he does not make lots of money. After expressing his disappointment, Willy finds some hope that his son will discover what he wants to do with himself: "Some people just don't get started till later in life, like Thomas Edison".

In fact, Biff wants to work in a farm: he expresses his sense of delight when working with animals. However, he always ends up coming back home because he thinks he's earning too little ("$28 a week") and he is acting "like a boy" (not married, not in business). He's in two minds as to what he wants to do: "I don't know what to do with myself", he says. Still, he hopes to reconcile his conflicting motivations: "With the ranch I can do the work I like and still be something". The "still be something" probably refers to the notion of being "well-liked" and of making money, both which are very important to his father. Biff's brother, Happy, suffers from the same problem as Biff: "I'm constantly lowering my ideals". The two brothers play with the idea of working together on a farm.

The following questions can be used to generate a discussion in class:

  • Is Willy justified in having these expectations of his sons? What expectations do you think you might have of your children?
  • Do you think that parents / society at large are influential in determining what job people do? Do you think your parents/society are influential in determining what job you will do? How influential should parents be, and how should they exercise their influence? Does that influence help or hinder the process of self-finding?
  • At what age does one finally know oneself? Does education help in this respect?
  • Do you experience the kind of conflict that Biff and Happy experience in choosing their profession?
  • Do you think that the human capital model is correct in assuming that the wage is the key determinant of one's choice of whether or not to invest in one's education?
  • How do you intend going about choosing your profession? What are the key factors that play a role in your decision?

Students were asked to refer to the following academic sources:

(a) Parcel, T, and Menaghan, E., 1994, Parents' jobs and children's lives, especially Chapter 5, Parents' jobs and children's behaviour problems, New York: Aldine de Gruyer.
(b) Borjas, G.J., 2000, Labour Economics, McGraw-Hill, chapter 7 (Human Capital)

The tragedy can also be used to generate debate about the following topics:

  • Willy, who is old and wishes to stop working as a travelling salesman, asks his boss if he can have an office job. Willy's boss fires him instead, saying that Willy does not sell enough to retain a position within a firm. Willy is shocked. He complains that "[…] in those days there was […] respect, and comradeship, and gratitude in it. Today, it's all cut and dried and there's no chance for bringing friendship to bear---or personality." He cries out that "You can't eat the orange and throw the peel away - a man is not a piece of fruit!" Do you think that an employee can be fired on grounds of productivity alone? (note 2) If not, should the employee's age play a role? What about time spent working for a company? What other factors might play a role? Do you know what protection UK law offers to employees at present? Is it fair?
  • Biff complains that we "suffer fifty weeks of the year for the sake of a two-week vacation". How accurate a depiction is this of modern times? What can you do to avoid this?
  • Willy asks "[...] what could be more satisfying than to be able to go, at the age of 84, into 20 or 30 different cities, and pick up the phone, and be remembered and loved and helped by so many different people?". To what extent is human behaviour, including economic behaviour, explained by the desire to be appreciated by others? Do people work very hard to get other people's approval? Does such an attitude benefit an individual?
  • Willy commits suicide because he perceives his self-worth to be proportional to the volume of his sales, i.e. his productivity. To what extent is this belief found in our society? What do you think determines self-worth? Should wages reflect self-worth, productivity or both?
  • Willy describes his approach to business in these words: "[...] It's not what you do [...] It's who you know and the smile on your face!" Do you agree? If you do, does that imply that education is of limited importance? How important are contacts in determining success at work? In getting a job?

Results of pilot study

I assessed the response of students by means of a questionnaire. 45 questionnaires were returned to me, of which 25 were complete and were not self-contradictory. Here are some of the responses:

  • "It is good to visualize real life examples and to chain them to theory"
  • "I found the material that was shown relevant to my life situation"
  • "The movie is quite old so the relevance is minimal"
  • "It uses a media which young people grow up with"
  • "One picture says a thousand words"
  • "people can discuss the matter in relation to their experience"
  • "It bring the very relevant aspect of behavioural economics into the picture"
  • "It's the best session I have ever had"
  • "The module would be good before uni"
  • "It gives economics students an opportunity to relate to the arts and approach things from a different perspective"
  • "Seeing a film and relating it to real life is fascinating"

Most responses were favourable. I also asked students to rate the session they had attended:

Fig 1: Students' overall ratings of session on economics through cinema

  Overall session rating(average score shown, where 7 highest, 1 lowest) % of students who think module should be introduced "If you think module should be introduced, how useful would it be?" (average score shown, where 3 = hugely, 2 = a lot, 1 = a little)
Introduction to Macroeconomics
1st year BSc
5.6 92% 2.1
Economics of Cinema
3rd year BA
5.7 81% 2.1
Industrial Economics
3rd year BSc
5.6 77% 2.4
International Business
Studies MA
5.9 83% 2.4

As the table shows, the overall session rating was high, closer to a 6 than a 5, where 6 is "very good" and 5 is "good". Note the stability of the rating in spite of the variation in the year of study. The vast majority of students thought the module should be introduced; again, the year of study makes little difference to the size of the majority. Finally, students who wanted the module introduced thought it would benefit students a lot, some even hugely.

I also asked students to assess individual aspects of the sessions:

Fig. 2: Students' ratings of aspects of the economics through cinema experience

  Average     Average
Film quality 5.60 Relevance to your life 5.39
Discussion quality 5.33 Economic content 5.15
Total time 4.67 Will you remember? 5.47
Distribution of time 5.09 Male 55%
Academic material 5.53 Econ or business degree 82%
Structure 5.47 Scores from 1 to 7, where 7 highest (except for male and econ degree)

Students appreciated the quality of the films they had seen, as well as the quality of the academic material, possibly indicating that the students thought the academic material strongly related to the film, as I had hoped. Students did not like the total time spent on each session: I imagine that they wanted more time, either because they enjoyed the session and wanted more of the same, or because they felt they did not have enough time to properly evaluate the sessions (note 3).

Conclusion

I propose a new module in which economics is taught through cinema. This module differs from similar modules taught mainly in the US, in that the range of topics is much broader and the inter-disciplinary nature of economics is brought to the fore. The results of the pilot study in four existing modules at London Metropolitan University show that there are students who very much appreciate the teaching and learning of economics through this medium. There is strong evidence that the syllabus should be developed to completion and that the module should be offered to students.

References

Leet, D. and Houser, S., 2003. "Economics Goes to Hollywood: Using Classical Films and Documentaries to Create an Undergraduate Economics Course." Journal of Economic Education (Fall).

About the author:

Gherardo Girardi is an economist with research interests in economics of industry, corporate social responsibility, microfinance and environmental economics. After obtaining his MSc in economics, he worked for two years in investment banking, mainly in derivative products. He then completed a PhD in economics at the London School of Economics. Gherardo has taught in a number of universities, both in the UK and abroad. He is currently senior lecturer at London Metropolitan University.

Footnotes

1. A synopsis can be found in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Death_of_a_Salesman .

2. Students were asked to refer to Lawrence A., Weber, J. and Post J, 2005, Business and Society, especially chapter 18

3. I attempted a regression of overall rating on individual aspect ratings. The signs on two of the aspects were wrong, and the number of observations was a bit too low for comfort (around 40). However, two aspects were always significant no matter what equation specification I chose: relevance of session to students' lives and clear structure of the session.

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