Arjun Jayadev: CORE takes off in Bangalore

Tue 15th September 2015 | Blog
Arjun Jayadev, attends the pannel session Inequality : Claims about Genes to the 2015 annual conference of the INET (Institute for New Economic Thinking) in Paris, France, on 9th April 2015.
Arjun Jayadev

More than 300 paper planes lie in a gigantic pile in the corner of my classroom. They have been made over the last half an hour amidst a lot of hollering, hooting and cheering from competing “firms” in Azim Premji University’s new undergraduate program in economics. The classroom game, in which different-sized groups of students organise themselves to manufacture the planes, was created by Juan Camilo Cardenas of Universidad de los Andes, Bogotá as part of the supplementary teaching materials being developed for the CORE economics course.

And in all the chaotic fun, there is a serious pedagogical point. Students have had a first-hand demonstration of competition, diminishing marginal product, learning-by-doing, economies of scale and other economic concepts as applied to the paper plane production technology.

Maybe we can make a classroom mobile from this; a weird dangling display that will hold multiple understandings for the students in the weeks to come.

Later the same week, I’m observing a colleague’s literature class. The topic is the birth of the novel in 19th century Europe. A 17-year-old economics student from my class raises her hand and asks: was the industrial revolution, the breakdown of feudal ties, and the rise of a bourgeois class central to the rise of the novel? She was bringing her thinking about the great transformation from Unit 1 of CORE to another classroom. That evening, I get a note from the student:

“The discussion in the literature class also made me think deeper about what an extremely important and all-encompassing field economics is,” she writes, “and I am so glad to be learning it. Today was a good day!”

When my colleague Rahul De and I began to design the first undergraduate microeconomics course at Azim Premji University, we wanted to think differently about the economics curriculum. We adopted CORE because it has similar aims.

Our ambitions:

  • To provide a sense of the deep relevance of the economy for our social being: Understanding that our experiences and abilities have been strongly conditioned by our economic circumstances, and this in turn shapes our daily lives and societies.
  • To describe the economy as a dynamic entity: To give the students the basic understanding that history and institutions have a critical role to play in determining social outcomes and differences between individuals and places.
  • To demonstrate the power of economic reasoning: How simple analytical tools, when used with judgment, can help illuminate some aspects of debates—whether this is about the genesis of capitalism, the dynamism of different economies, or the impact of economic policies.
  • To show how economic policy and reasoning is contested: To expose students to the disagreements (and agreements) on the role of decentralised coordination, markets and other forms of social organisation.

But to make it really relevant to students in India, we would provide supplementary materials which we can integrate into a south Asian version of CORE in the future. Finding material focused on India to make this relevant has not been difficult:

  • In Unit 1 we introduced different outcomes across the Indian states in terms of growth and distribution, which gave examples of some of the explanations of uneven growth. We discussed structural transformation and the difference between a modern industrialised economy and the Lewis-type economy that is more recognisable in India.
  • In Unit 2, focusing on the Malthusian trap and the escape from it, we discussed the 1943 Bengal famine, Amartya Sen’s assessment of it, the green revolution, and the demographic transition across Indian states.
  • In Units 3 to 5, which discuss optimisation, strategic interaction and contracts, we used material about urban commons, global climate change, NREGA, immigration debates and other material. In the last class I taught, students were using the models in Unit 5 to discuss the impacts of social insurance policies on allocation and distribution, and the political implications in terms of voting.

Later this year I will be meeting with other teachers from The CORE Project in Lahore, Pakistan to develop these and other south Asian adaptations.

Is the curriculum working? We think so. The students could not be more engaged.

One more story: in class we try an exercise from CORE called Capitalism among consenting adults, in which we discuss whether individual contracts that lead to Pareto improvements for individuals (selling of votes, a market for babies, the sex trade) should be allowed. Economic analysis helps think about these issues, but clearly they raise moral questions too. The discussion becomes heated. In the dormitories, the debates go on into the night, and students from other disciplines get involved.

The next day a student asks wistfully: “can’t we separate these ethical questions from economics?”

Something they will hopefully grapple with over many years.

Arjun Jayadev of Azim Premji University and Umass Boston is a CORE author and teacher