Learning about a world in crisis

Pierre Smith Khanna

The year is 1929. The world’s economy is undergoing its severest financial crisis to date. A general panic seizes peoples’ minds. Amid the chaos, millions upon millions are lost, stock markets collapse, Germany goes into hyperinflation, Hitler rises to power, unemployment soars, people are rioting in the streets… The rest, as they say, is history.

This is of course a gross oversimplification. More worrying is the idea that some of this really is history. Financial crises are a topic that – unbelievably – remain conspicuously absent from economics syllabi taught in schools the world over. The 2008 crisis comes as a wakeup call not just for economists, financiers, politicians and policy makers, but for teachers too.

It was in the light of this that a class was offered here at Brockwood Park School on the role of institutions and the global economy. Ten students aged 15-18 took the class and together explored how exactly the world runs. Why is law necessary? and Are greedy bankers, politicians, corporations, the unemployed (etc.) responsible for the financial crisis of 2008, for the state of the world today? were two of the questions the students were asked to write essays about, with surprising results.

The class had very little structure, which took students some time to get used to. Not all of them did and in the end preferred a more traditional approach involving a clear curriculum or ‘chapters’, which would be easier to follow. We resisted this approach, however, on the grounds that part of the learning would come through the very absence of such compartmentalization. The classes would begin with a question, posed either by the teachers or by the students, which would develop into a discussion involving the whole class. Many more questions would follow, explanations were challenged, and students left the class with new, unanswered questions.

Others are also beginning to see the need for a more grounded approach to economics and have proposed to include financial crises in high school curriculums. Over the last few years the UK’s Department for Education has been reviewing the GCSE and A-Level curriculum and one of their conclusions was the need “to clarify the types of economic issues which should be studied” and focus on “current and historical” events*.

These are a welcome addition to an already over-stretched curriculum which crams in a whole load of data and theory often to the detriment of understanding how the economy actually works. A glance at the ISC and NCERT syllabi suggests the same – that economics studied at senior school is really about grasping theories and quantitative analysis rather than attempting to understand how the global economy functions.

Studying the 2008 crisis is vital then in that it actually happened. Examining the crisis, how and why it came about, and its consequences – not only in terms of the financial industry and its regulatory bodies but also on society at large – provides an excellent framework to understand the complexities of economics and its relationship with politics and society.

It is by no means easy to broach these enormous questions, as we did with students at Brockwood Park, over the course of seven weeks. The advantage of such an approach, however, is the sense that the questions are enormous and that they do not admit of any easy answers. Often, students would want an answer and press the teachers for one, only to receive a shake of the head or a shrug of the shoulders. “Go and find out!” was the spirit of the class.

The importance, we believe, is not so much that they come up with a ‘correct’ or even ‘interesting’ answer (whatever those words might mean) but that they might come out of the class with a sense that the world is a complicated and often contradictory place, that there are different ways of making sense of it, and these are held up in scrutiny by their questions and desire to understand.

If there is one driving force behind students it is precisely this – a seemingly boundless desire to under-stand and to know. To limit this through narrow subject-boundaries, as curriculums are so apt at doing, is to stifle the very drive we as teachers should be encouraging. History and politics are as enriching to the study of economics as is calculus and it’s absurd to think that we should teach otherwise.

Unfortunately, all too often economics is studied in isolation, as a science with definitive theories the world is expected to conform to. Yet a glance at the crises of 1929, Japan’s 1991 crash, the Asian financial crisis of 1997 and of course 2008 – suggests that economics alone cannot explain why these calamities occurred.

At the risk of being reductionist, the purpose of school is to acquire knowledge and the capacity to think critically and question things. What is important is to remind ourselves that this spirit of inquiry matters because without it we cannot expect to address the many challenges that face present and future generations. The knowledge learnt at school is equally valuable, as it provides the tools from which we all enter adult life. It stands to reason that if this knowledge is stale and disconnected from the world we actually live in, we’ll be badly equipped to face oncoming challenges.

The role Central Banks play in the economy, how banks make their profits, how governments regulate monetary policy, the role of the financial sector in the global economy, the particular risks involved and how these are all related to growth and the ‘fundamental problem of economics’ – all these are crucial questions for students of economics to learn about. Like it or not, it is impossible to divorce economics from politics, so it simply makes more sense to study economics in tandem with other social sciences. It is in the interest of students studying economics to be aware of the relationship between economics and politics – something which will hopefully pave the way to a better understanding of crises and how we might mitigate their effects.

This is not to say that it’s an easy thing to do. The class at Brockwood Park wasn’t always rosy. Many difficulties were encountered in running it, comprised as it was of students from different age groups, with different ways of understanding things and often divergent interests. At the end of the seven weeks some students were happy to call it a day, and some decided to pursue their inquiry into political economy along their interests and their questions. Unsurprisingly, one of these has to do with understanding the 2008 crisis. To them, this was an obvious place to start.

*Department for Education, Reformed GCSE, AS and A level subject content Government consultation response, January 2016.

The author teaches history at Brockwood Park School, Hampshire, UK. He can be reached at pierre@brockwood.org.uk.