Economics Class Becomes a Study in Current Events

By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 17, 2008

According to her syllabus, the topic of the day in Professor Lynne Kelly's graduate microeconomics class at Howard University yesterday was to be cost analysis. But the headlines highlighted another shift in the government's bank-bailout strategy; another toilet flush of the stock market; another day of credit chaos around the world.

The headlines won. Kelly abandoned her notes for an hour-long improv on the latest dispatches from the economic front.

She is not alone. According to economics and business teachers at area colleges and high schools, lecturing in this tumultuous time has been like trying to conduct a symphony even as someone keeps rewriting the music. Lesson plans that have been accurate for years are silent on credit default swaps and primary dealer credit facilities. Finance textbooks that were up-to-date at the beginning of the semester are suddenly missing whole layers of government involvement in the banking sector. Few professors started the term with a PowerPoint slide on the end of capitalism.

"I've put away the book for a while," Kelly said. "There is just something new almost every day."

For economics and government classes at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, George Vlasits has been feverishly clipping daily news coverage on the theory that the first rough draft of history is currently more pertinent than any textbook written more than, say, a month ago.

"We've been charting our own way here," said Vlasits, the head of the school's social studies department. "Outside of 9/11, I don't think any other event in my time has had the significance for teaching as this crisis."

"A lot of this is not covered by traditional economic theory," he continued. "It's like the textbooks written before 1929 that were basically out of date in 1931. That situation may well be happening now. It's a real opportunity to teach the students to keep an open mind."

Elinda Kiss, a teaching fellow at the University of Maryland in College Park, went over basic regulation with her Banking and Financial Institutions class at the beginning of the semester. But that was way back in the day, before Oct. 1, when the FDIC insured deposits only up to $100,000. The Treasury Department's $750 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program didn't even exist. Kiss had to revisit those lessons, adding a lot of on-the-fly lecture material to keep her students on pace with galloping events.

"We have all these new Fed policies that are not in the textbook," said Kiss, who is so up-to-date that she added four essay questions on new government actions to yesterday's midterm exam. "I always bring recent events into class, but now I have real events happening that day as opposed to six months or a year ago."

One might expect teachers to be pulling their hair out over near-daily convulsions in the economic paradigm that keep jumbling their class notes. But the teachers interviewed for this article had a different reaction: They love it.

As experts, they relish the real-time view of a once-in-a-generation upheaval. As instructors, they happily take advantage of the fact that even slacker students are paying attention to the financial news.

"It's permeating everything," said Carmen Reinhart, an economics professor at the University of Maryland who happens to be writing a book on eight centuries of financial crises. "The order of magnitude and scope of this is like nothing we've lived through."

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