A few months ago I was browsing through the catalog of a producer of a popular curriculum for Christian high schools and home schools. As an economist, I was naturally interested in their offerings in that area, and was mildly surprised to find that in an otherwise well-rounded classical curriculum, there was virtually nothing available on economics. My inquiries left me with the impression that the publisher, while not opposed to economics, viewed the subject as too technical and vocationally oriented to fit into a classical, liberal arts curriculum.
Classical or not, too many Christian school students are not being taught economics. Part of the reason for this is, well, economic: people trained in economics who are willing to teach the subject at the high school level are relatively scarce. Undergraduate degrees in economics have historically allowed higher-than-average incomes, so that the financial sacrifice required to teach economics at the high school level is more significant. Furthermore, those who plan to teach in secondary schools seem to have below-average interest in economics. From my experience teaching at the college level, it seems that education majors tend to avoid economics courses Therefore, if economics is taught at all, it is usually taught by someone without much training or interest in the subject. Administrators, who are often drawn from the population of teachers, tend to share the bias. Frequently, the low priority assigned to economics results in lumping it in with government.
This does high school students a tragic disservice. Training in even the most basic economic concepts can yield remarkable insights into the everyday functioning of many parts of our society. As R.J. Rushdoony wrote, "Economics deserves a place in the high school curriculum, not as a branch of civics or civil government, but as an independent law sphere."
Perhaps one reason for the omission of economics from high schools is a misunderstanding of what the discipline actually is. Economics is often thought of as being similar to accounting or finance — after all, don't they all deal with money? Yet economics is about much more than money. The term "economy" originates in the Greek word oikonomia, meaning "household manager," and that was the sense in which the ancient Greeks Hesiod and Xenophon used the term. As economics has developed over the centuries, it has become a study of individual choices in the marketplace, in businesses, in households, and in governments.
History, theology, and economics are tightly linked. Early theologians, such as Aquinas, San Bernardino, and Summenhart; and Reformation-era scholars, such as Calvin and Salmasius, wrestled with economic issues such as usury and the just price. From the 18th until the 20th century, economics was more commonly called "political economy," reflecting the growing focus on national economies and government finance. Whether as an art of household stewardship, a study of the business world, or as a study of political economy, economics is a discipline that merits fuller coverage in the high school curriculum.
Instruction in economics should begin in the eleventh or twelfth grade, or at least after all algebra and geometry courses have been completed. Economics rewards precise, logical, analytical thinking, so if logic is part of the curriculum, economics should be offered either after or concurrently with logic. Schools with a liberal arts focus may choose a more philosophical and less technical approach, but some of the fundamentals of economics are best expressed graphically and cannot be avoided if the young student is to be well-grounded in the discipline.
Economics in a Christian school should not be derived from humanistic presuppositions, of course. From Smith to Marx to Mises, economists have centered their theories on man. In The Philosophy of the Christian Curriculum, R.J. Rushdoony criticized the modern "social sciences" as being implicitly atheistic and "hostile to freedom in any Christian sense." One of the basic premises of the social sciences is that "history and society must be studied scientifically, that is, in terms of purely naturalistic considerations, without reference to God or to any eternal law." The society that results is then one of perpetual scientific experimentation, and "since controls are basic to experimentation…a totalitarian society is the goal of the social sciences, in that freedom is destructive to planning and human engineering." Even Ludwig von Mises, whose writings consigned theories of statist planning to the ash heap, began his work on the premise that man acts, and is subordinate to no divine power.
In contrast, a Biblical approach to economics sees that man is not the ultimate actor — he has a fallen nature. God sovereignly acts in history to bring about His own ends. As Martin Luther once wrote, "God alone is in this business; we are seized — so that I see we are acted upon rather than act." Economics, therefore, cannot be properly understood without the knowledge of God.
A Christian curriculum should relate economics explicitly to God as we know Him through His Word. This is the foundation. The Bible does not, of course, provide demand and supply curves, and much of the usual accompaniment to an economics course. Yet many of the analytical tools of economics follow logically from Biblical principles, and should be a major part of the program. Teachers should use these tools to tie together readings on the history of economic thought, the role of government, personal and family stewardship, and the functions of the firm. Students should be exposed to readings from "classics" in economics and taught to evaluate them carefully: Frederic Bastiat, Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek, Karl Marx, Ludwig von Mises, Adam Smith, and more.
Christian schools will respond to repeated requests by parents that economics be included in the high school curriculum. Until then, parents may need to provide their children with supplementary training in economics. This will prepare them for college economics courses and, more generally, for Biblical thinking about society.
- Timothy D. Terrell
Timothy Terrell is associate professor of economics at Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina. He is assistant editor of the Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics and is an Associated Scholar with the Mises Institute.