Economics has now also come to the schools of North Rhine-Westphalia. Starting in the school year 2020/21, economics is to become a mandatory subject in all secondary schools in this state – North Rhine-Westphalia is taking the step that Baden-Württemberg took four years ago.

ZEW President Professor Achim Wambach on advantages and disadvantages of the compulsory subject economy.
ZEW President Professor Achim Wambach, PhD., on the necessity and implementation of the compulsory subject economy in German schools.

Having a solid understanding of economic interrelationships is essential to be able to take an active role in modern society. However, being “prepared for life” comes with a number of implications: being able to make long-term financial decisions regarding, for instance, retirement planning; distinguishing oneself in the labour market; making business decisions in everyday professional life; acting as a responsible citizen when judging the decisions of economic policymakers; and influencing these decisions as voters. Understanding economic issues is no simple matter. Just think of complex equilibrium phenomena, for instance. A certain understanding of macro- and microeconomics is necessary in order to understand that in a crisis like the current one, increasing government debt makes sense, but can be problematic for private households.

Teaching methods and theories of economics

But wouldn’t it be better to place more emphasis on computer and technical sciences, this being the digital age? Or allocate more time to core subjects like mathematics, natural sciences and foreign languages? To answer these questions, we need reliable data on the achievements of school education – something we are still lacking. The Board of Academic Advisors of the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy pointed this out several years ago, and called on schools to open up to the possibility of a regular review of school performance. Currently, for example, Germany does not take part in the PISA test for financial literacy, thereby failing to take full advantage of the diversity of a federal system and the possibility to learn from each other.

If we take a closer look at the frequently used teaching materials, the striking difference between natural science and economics classes in high school education becomes apparent regarding the focus on the political discourse, for instance, in questions relating to globalisation. A brief introduction to this topic is in many cases followed by a critical discussion of who the losers of globalisation are and how, for example, it leads to more child labour or harms the environment. No doubt, these are important issues. But we must ask ourselves whether the priorities are set correctly. Economics offers a set of methods and theories, and only when we have learned them can we begin to critically reflect on these issues on an informed basis. Otherwise, we will observe the same phenomenon we frequently encounter on the internet: an eagerness to discuss current issues coupled with a lack of knowledge.

The quality of economics as a subject goes hand in hand with the competence and the teaching skills of high school staff. The federal states in question have adapted their curricula in order to provide their teachers with appropriate training. In this context, it would help to remind the business administration and economics faculties at universities that they are also partly responsible for the training and further education of the teaching staff. University teaching must reflect the enthusiasm economists share for their subject. Only then will it be possible that the introduction of economics as a high school subject will ultimately be a success – for students, but also for the economy as a whole.

This article was previously published in a longer version on 17 August 2020 in the “Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung”.





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