How To Teach Italian

italian_verbs_1_avere_essere_dare_edited-1Mike Konczal objects to the typical sequence of a first-year economics curriculum: a semester of microeconomics, studying individuals, firms, and markets, followed by a semester of macroeconomics, looking at the economy as a whole. Austrian economists generally reject the artificial distinction between micro and macro, as taught in the mainstream textbooks, but most would start with individual human action, the analysis of bilateral then interpersonal exchange, then capital and production before going on to more complex interactions among capitalists, entrepreneurs, workers, and consumers, money and banking, the business cycle, and so on — in a broad sense, micro before macro.

Konczal thinks economists should teach macro first, then micro:

What if macroeconomics came first, before the study of individual markets? If were to reverse the typical curriculum, the first thing undergraduates would encounter wouldn’t be abstract theories about people optimizing, but instead the idea of involuntary unemployment and the idea that the economy could operate below its potential. They’d study the economy in the short-run before going to issues of long-term growth, with professors having to explain the theories on how the two are linked, bringing in crucial concepts like hysteresis.

Then, in the second class, they would get to microeconomics. But that too would be taught backwards. They’d start with institutions, understanding what enables a market economy to exist. Then they’d move on to the issue of firms with market power and externalities. Then, only at the very end, they’d get to the purest abstraction of perfect markets, with a final emphasis on what it means to be the isolated, optimizing Robinson Crusoe at the very end.

Konczal confuses differences in the level of aggregation with differences in theory versus application and “perfect” versus “imperfect” settings, among other problems. (He also seems to know little about how economics is actually taught — some textbooks put macro before micro already, and many programs teach micro and macro as standalone courses that students can take in any order.) But consider his core claim that aggregate phenomena should be studied first, their constituent elements second. How would this work in other settings?

I propose a Konczalian experiment, a two-semester model for teaching Italian literature to American students. In the first semester they examine classic and modern works, in the original language, and discuss them in class. Students choose their favorites and argue the merits of each work, paying particular attention to the professor’s own idiosyncratic preferences. Next they review Italian-language newspapers and blogs and relate literary works to broader social, cultural, and political trends. In the second semester, they learn to read Italian.


  1. So basically, he wants people to begin by accepting various nebulous floating abstractions as a given, and then move from there to studying microeconomics from an individualist perspective, when beginning in reverse would most likely dispel a lot of these abstractions and expose them for what they are? Understandable, if you are advocating a castle built of sand.

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