Using Technology to Provide a Liberal Studies Perspective
in Introductory Economics

Robert F. Mulligan, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor, Department of Economics, Finance, and International Business, Western Carolina University
Research Associate, Department of Economics, State University of New York at Binghamton

Prepared for presentation at the Robert Morris College-Irwin/McGraw-Hill Conference, 2/17-19/2000


Introductory Micro and Macroeconomics courses may or may not satisfy general education or liberal studies requirements at various institutions.  The focus of these courses is usually narrowly technical, which means they make a very limited contribution toward maturing our students into educated people.

Recently, great emphasis has been placed on incorporating the use of information technology into these courses.  Popular techniques include websites and computer software, which are valuable pedagogical aids in their own right.  Though use technology promotes technical literacy, it often does little or nothing to stimulate students' critical faculties.

Using a "great books" approach addresses this shortcoming, and contributes to students' liberal education.  The essence of this approach is to discuss reading assignments from primary texts.  Students clearly benefit from reading seminal authors in the history of economic thought such as Adam Smith, Karl Marx, John Stuart Mill, and others, in a way no contemporary textbook can approach.  All these public domain texts are available free-of-charge as a teaching resource on the web, from various sources, though many are provided through a project of McMaster University: [].


The goal of college education should be to facilitate the emergence of confident adults with a broad general experience.  Introductory economics courses may be a distributional requirement for non-economics and non-business majors, and typically serve a foundations of knowledge function for business and economics majors.  A review of any popular undergraduate text reveals the focus of introductory economics courses has become narrowly technical.

One way to inject the "big-idea" humane studies focus back into the discipline is to assign supplemental readings for class discussion.  Supplemental readings from the classics of economic thought enrich student intellectual development and also raise the level of discussion of theoretical issues addressed by contemporary textbooks.

Gift and Krislov (1991) suggest the following criteria for identifying a classic:

1. The work must have advanced the methodology of the discipline and must have used this advance to produce new insights.
2. The work must incorporate, either by synthesis or antithesis, previous understanding of its topics.
3. The book must be used as source material on discipline-specific issues by scholars outside the discipline.
4. The book must be source material for scholars within or without the discipline on broad questions of methodology, philosophy, and policy.
5. There must be evidence the book has influenced research agenda outside the discipline.
6. The impact of the work must be cross-cultural and timeless, and it must invite rereading.
Gift and Krislov conclude that various works in economics meet these criteria, particularly Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, Thomas Malthus’s Essay on Population, Karl Marx’s Capital, Thorstein Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class, and Alfred Marshall’s Principles of Economics.  Using the same criteria, the present author would add Carl Menger’s Principles of Economics, and Ludwig von Mises’s Human Action.

Nevertheless, Gift and Krislov’s six criteria are too narrow in that they clearly only apply to scientific or technical works, but not to fiction, poetry, and other works valued for their literary qualities and broader intellectual appeal.

Quality of literary exposition and clarity of expression should be considered in selecting readings.  Smith and Menger have outstanding English writing styles.  Turgot, J.S. Mill, Marx, and Veblen are particularly difficult authors.  In the case of Turgot and Marx, this criticism is directed at their English translators.  Students may benefit from grappling with high language, but also need role models for their own writing.  Instructors might ask “who would I like my students to emulate in their writing?”

Kish-Goodling (1998) provides an outstanding and thorough discussion of applications of monetary economics presented in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice.  Aristophanes’s The Frogs gives the earliest statement of Gresham’s law, and can be used to illustrate that principle.  L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is an allegory on the politics of bimetallism (Rockoff 1990).

Watts and Smith (1989) provide an excellent survey of drama and fiction works useful for teaching economics, including Dickens, Dos Passos, Huxley, Steinbeck, and Wilder.  O’Donnell (1989) discusses fiction written with the explicit intention of illustrating economic principles, though these novels typically do not qualify as great books.


Two models of implementation will be presented to serve as a basis for discussion.  Model A consists of five phases: selection, dissemination, discussion, evaluation, and feedback.  Model B adds an additional initial phase, requirement specification, but is otherwise identical.  Model A implementation is easier and less time-consuming for web novices to set up and apply.

Basically, instructors select readings from the set of texts they know to be readily accessible and available, e.g., through the McMaster University Archive of the History of Economic Thought website.  A helpful rule of thumb is to plan on one reading per week if the course is built around the primary text readings, and one every two weeks or longer if the primary texts are assigned to supplement a standard textbook.

The difference between these two models of implementation is in what comes first:  selection of the readings, as in model A, which is more appropriate for new adopters, or course needs, as in model B, which is most easily realized once the instructor has become accustomed to what can be accomplished with this approach.

Manning (1996, pp. 60-61) highlights the need to emphasize development of higher-order critical skills in undergraduate teaching.  Difficult, highly-insightful readings are a first step in addressing this need, but the logical next step is to implement a writing assignment based on, or at least informed by, the readings.  Torres (1995) provides a non-discipline-specific framework for constructing writing assignments.  Her approach has extremely broad application in or outside of economics.


Anyone with a webbrowser can set up a supplemental reading list in an afternoon.  As a first step, it may be helpful to explore what is available, but for economics courses, most relevant readings are available through the McMaster University website. Once course contact time is divided, a topic area is selected for each reading.  When primary texts are used to supplement a course textbook, topic areas can be chosen to correspond to chapter coverage in the course textbook.  Then a primary source reading is chosen for each topic.

Once the instructor has selected readings, they need to be disseminated to the class, which can be done in low-tech mode in a handout with each web address listed, or in high-tech mode on a course website with hyperlinks to each reading.  Some lecture time (or recitation time, if available) must be set aside for discussion of the readings.  Particular emphasis must be placed on relating the content of the readings to the standard content in the primary textbook.  Ideally, in-class discussion of primary texts enlivens and complements discussion.  Instructors should mention the relevance of the primary text assignments whenever they appear relevant to the standard course coverage.  Feel free to mention how previous readings are relevant, or how future readings will be relevant, to the present discussion.

The evaluation phase consists of including specific references to the primary text assignments in graded diagnostic instruments, e.g., multiple-choice questions, essay questions, and/or term papers.  In the last phase, student feedback should be elicited, perhaps in the form of a questionnaire.  Students can be asked their favorite and least favorite readings.

For low-tech implementation, it is only necessary to provide a paper handout with the assignments and website addresses printed out on paper.  A logical next step is to provide the handout as a page linked to the instructor's course website or on-line syllabus.  The instructor can also provide hyperlinks on an online assignments page, for ease of use by students: [].

One caveat which should be red-flagged is the importance of proofreading web addresses.  A typographical error in a web address renders it useless, and such errors are very difficult to diagnose and correct.  The McMaster University website addresses all include the ambiguous extension "/3113/, " which can be interpreted as containing ones or lower-case Ls - the threes suggest a number, but the figures are in-fact Ls.

This difficulty is alleviated if the instructor adopts a higher-tech implementation of an assignments website with hyperlinks.  The instructor will know to adjust the linked addresses until they work, and can minimize address ambiguities by using the cut-and-paste utility to copy the addresses directly from your webbrowser.

Students may also be assigned website development projects based on or otherwise related to the readings or other course material.  Wolfe et al (1998) provide illustrative examples.


Instructors must ensure time is available for intelligent and thorough discussion of supplemental readings.  This should not be an issue if the primary texts are the only reading assignment, because then the course discussion is built around the readings.  Students will probably feel cheated if confronted with an impressive set of difficult reading assignments, completion of which detracts from other activities, if the readings are not discussed in class.

Students will likewise feel cheated if course diagnostic instruments do not include some references to the primary texts.  Multiple-choice questions about the readings, essay questions referring to the readings, or term papers, are alternative solutions to this problem.  Students should be encouraged to print out a copy of each assigned reading to mark up, bring to class, study from, etc.  Reading from a printed copy also minimizes eyestrain.


Primary text-based readings can be used as supplemental assignments.  Since many primary texts are available free-of-charge on the internet, instructors have a resource which allows them to chose from a wide variety of specifically history-of-economic-thought readings.

Instructors are able, in effect, to edit their own book of readings or supplemental readings, drawn from the classics of economics or other literary sources.  You get to assign from a set of readings you edited, which are provided at no cost to your students.  The cost of a set of readings would be high, and published selections do not necessarily meet instructor requirements.  If students had to buy a copy of each book assigned, the cost might be prohibitive, and might influence instructors to economize on sources.


Gift, R.E., & Krislov, J. 1991. Are there classics in economics? Journal of Economic Education 22:27-32.

Kish-Gooding, D.M. 1998. Using The Merchant of Venice in teaching monetary economics. Journal of Economic Education 29:330-339.

Manning, L.M. 1996. A classroom strategy for teaching economics in a multidisciplinary context. Journal on Excellence in College Teaching 7:57-69.

O’Donnell, M.G. 1989. A historical note on the use of fiction to teach principles of economics. Journal of Economic Education 20:314-320.

Rockoff, H. 1990. The Wizard of Oz as a monetary allegory. Journal of Political Economy 98:739-761.

Torres, E.M. 1995. Analytical literacy: Making scholars out of students. Journal on Excellence in College Teaching 6:17-29.

Watts, M., & Smith, R.F. 1989. Economics in literature and drama. Journal of Economic Education 20:291-307.

Wolfe, C.R., Crider, C., Mayer, L., McBride, M., Sherman, R., & Vogel, R. 1998. Toward a Miami University model for internet-intensive higher education. Journal on Excellence in College Teaching 9:29-51.

Internet resources:

Primary Texts and the Great Books:
Concordances of Great Books:
McMaster University Archive of Economic Thought:
Rice University Galileo Project:
Project Gutenberg:
University of California at Berkeley Alex:
Yale University Primary Legal Texts: