[note to self]
Economics, sociology, anthropology, history, psychology, and the other social sciences are currently taught in an unorganised manner. The undergraduate degree in any of these disciplines consists of about 20 separate courses that each differ markedly from the other 19 and that are unrecogniseable of those of the other disciplines. The language used in each course is different, the perspective on the same events differs, and there are deep contradictions in any course with what is said in the other courses.
The ways things are taught are usually also very old-fashioned and dull, with little use made of the possibilities of virtual reality and field trips. Pontificating teachers dominate the courses, with little of the knowledge truly reaching the students.
It can be done much better. I think it is possible to teach students the actual content of all the regular social science undergrad courses in one curriculum in a manner that they understand the material and see the interconnections. It can certainly be done for the relatively bright students, say the top 30% of the usual students found in the West.
The biggest change needed is to teach the material in terms of basic patterns, with more complex arguments taught later as combinations of basic patterns. Another change needed is to enforce a single language on the entire curriculum. Finally, what is needed is far more use of virtual reality-teaching and field trips so that students experience the phenomena they are meant to understand, unlocking their visual acuity and emotional skills as learning tools. Students should learn with their whole being, not merely with their abstractive capacities.
What do I mean by basic patterns and how would one mobilise more of the mental faculties of students? Let me give three examples from different disciplines to illustrate the immense similarities between them and how it can be presented.
A basic sociological pattern (eg Durkheim) is that of comparative advantage: a group of individuals can produce more if they each specialise in what they are relatively best at. One does not need to introduce exchange or prices to make that point, because those are other patterns. The basic pattern of comparative advantage is that there exist different productivities across entities.
This pattern should be taught in a layered manner, from exceptionally simple to incredibly complex. In the simplest form, one would have two people with comparative advantages. Students can learn to recognise it in a game, where the only object is to maximise some notion of joint production via the allocation of time. Once students have experienced this possibility, one can expand the pattern to talk about comparative advantages between countries, between the countryside and the city, between rulers and the ruled, between parents and their children, between partners in a marriage. The various forms of comparative advantage in various realms can be experienced in a virtual reality game, as well as by students re-interpreting their experiences as social beings.
Once students ‘get’ the point, both at a cognitive and emotional level, one can then put this into maths and statistics (which can become incredibly complex very quickly). By doing it this way round, mathematics is put in its proper place in social science: as a codification of what one knows by more basic means, not as the original source of the knowledge. The next step is to then combine the comparative advantage pattern with other patterns, like exchange and prices, or the notion of prior investments that create comparative advantages over time.
A different pattern is that of abstract ideation wherein the approach to any social problem is to imagine some possible solution that comes with causal pathways as to how to get there. This act of the imagination has a huge number of examples, but the key thing is that a problem is encountered that requires a leap from where one is to where one thinks one could be. This pattern too can be taught in an experiential and layered manner.
A simple version of this is literally that of a journey with an obstacle (a tree over the road, a stream) where an act of the imagination causes one to jump over or go around the obstacle, using implicit knowledge of both the road and the obstacle. A less simple example is of imagining a paddle to get a boat to move from one end to the other. Another example is to imagine redistribution to solve poverty. A less simple example again is to imagine a god to which one can appeal to get it to rain (imagined solutions need not be right!). All these examples can be made experiential, enforced by field trips and actual conversations with people experiencing problems and telling stories of supposed solutions. By going over selected examples one is effectively re-imagining social science as a whole, breaking it all down into quite simple patterns.
Note that for this pattern one does not engage with the supposed solutions or even the supposed problems: it is the act of imagination that is itself put under the microscope, put into stylised and personal experiences, and eventually mathematised. For instance, the idea of a perfect market or a productivity possibilities frontier are classic examples of imaginative thinking in economics, but one need not look at either in any detail to ‘get’ the idea of a leap of the imagination from what is to what could be.
A third example of a pattern is increasing returns to scale, ie that more can be produced if resources are bundled towards the same end. This too can go from very trite (cooperation begets more output) to more poignant (a unified band of warriors can subdue a much larger population and get all the benefits). By drawing out how very complex historical and societal processes involve very simple basic patterns, such as that the state at heart can be seen as a monopoly of violence, unifying themes between the social sciences are brought out that are currently known by insiders but that students will generically never see.
To learn to see basic patterns in history, current institutions, and in different social situations can be practised both via virtual reality games, as well as via field trips wherein students get to experience what it is like to be swept away by the crowd, to feel powerful, to be bewildered by hyper-inflation, and to be afraid of the unknown.
More complex phenomena and ideas can then be gradually built up as combinations of basic patterns. A well-functioning market for instance is a combination of various things: prior production by many sellers, planned consumption by many buyers, mediated exchange, visible price formation and implicit formation of knowledge about quality and trustworthiness. Each of these is a different pattern that can be seen in all the social sciences and that first should be studied and experienced on its own before adding them all together in an actual market. By letting students see the complexity of something like a market, they would also understand why it has proven too difficult to actually mathematise markets and that yet the discipline of economics relies heavily on market-derived thinking by simply presuming properties associated with markets in various situations (i.e. law of one price, zero-profits, etc.). Students would thus also start to see the quasi-religious elements in the various social sciences, not as a failing but as the optimal approach to complexity. Rather than present quasi-religious elements as a critique they would learn to see such elements are normal and present in all social sciences. There would thus be a liberation from false pretenses.
The teaching of mathematics at primary schools, particularly the Singapore model, now follows exactly this line of thinking: from simple to complex where one first really gets familiar with each basic pattern before combining the patterns. Children are for instance drilled into a lot of multiplications to ‘get’ what multiplication means. When they are then taught about exponentials they first extrapolate from their prior experience of multiplication to recognise that exponentials look a lot like a sequence of multiplications, though over time they learn it truly is a new pattern that then itself becomes the basis of further explorations.
Also, the Singapore model of teaching mathematics coopts the visual memory of students by using pictures, as-if situations, and natural-looking objects to teach the basic patterns. Many of the basic patterns of mathematics can be experienced, which makes it far easier for students to ‘get’ them and then to hold onto them. In the case of addition, multiplication and division this is trivial. But it is now also done for the normal distribution (which emerges for instance when one looks at the dispersion patterns of kicking a ball) and for logarithms (which emerges when one looks at increments in perception).
We should teach social science in the same way but coopting even more of the mental faculties of students, which would make seemingly complex and mysterious phenomena like love and religion look almost trivial once properly dissected.
Why don’t we do this already and what are hence the barriers? The biggest problem is the prior teaching and career incentives of the social scientists currently doing the teaching.
Social science has become increasingly specialised such that there are now thousands of little territories dominated by small groups of scientists who each write their own textbook about their supposedly unique subject area. This territorial game comes with the incentive for each little group to invent their own language or else to invent a very different meaning to the same words used by others. In the language of first-year economics, what each group does is to erect entry barriers to their basic knowledge so as to increase the monopoly rents they can then extract.
The current social scientists are not going to let go of their monopoly rents easily. In the development of an integrative curriculum they will complain and obstruct. They will resist the unification of language; they will resist having to re-think their subject in terms of simpler patterns; and they will only engage with more modern and immersive forms of teaching if they feel they have to.
The more famous the social scientist, the more of a problem they can be expected to be because the more they would have to lose from the de-mystification of their subject areas. The less famous social scientists have less to lose, but of course are usually less able to do the work of dissecting what is known across many areas into much simpler patterns.
A unifying approach to social science is potentially a huge boon to the university that gets it right, and as such something that interests the hierarchy. University administrators are used to having to deal with the egos of scientists and will thus easily recognise their inevitable whinging. Yet, on the other hand the administrations can fear the risks involved in field trips and immersive experiences needed to have students experience high-emotive phenomenon, such as the power of a crowd or the lure of religion. Scientists will on the other hand fear this much less and be rather intrigued by the challenge of creating the right environment in which such phenomena can be made experiential.
So one should expect both scientists and administrators to have problems with the approach sketched above, with the scientists fearing additional work and the loss of mystique whilst the administrators fearing the potential results of actual learning, i.e. students who have truly been challenged and changed.
What would it take to organise this? The virtual reality challenge is quite difficult. I happen to know that one attempt in this direction (Playconomics) took the creators 2 years of their life to program just one course. To put 10 courses into this kind of format would thus easily cost 20 work-years of high-end programming, i.e. it would easily take a team of 5 good programmers 4 years.
One should also not underestimate the task of dissecting current social science into more basic patterns. Based on my own experimentation in this direction over the years, I estimate it would need a team of about 5 good social scientists from the different disciplines incrementally going over the material together and agreeing on a common language and a common view of how the more complex phenomenon can be broken down into shared simpler patterns. They should be able to crack it in 2 years and then optimise the teaching in 5.
Then there is the experimentation with formats and field trips and whatnot. It will take a few years to get that right, costing a lot of effort in terms of organisation.
So I think it would take a team of roughly 15 people some 5 years to develop this and set it up as a 3.5 year set of 20 courses. If one adds material and facilities to this, one is hence talking in the range of 10-20 million dollars in terms of developmental costs. To do the experimentation one would furthermore need the active cooperation of an existing education institution with reasonable students being taught the initial courses.
Once there is an integrated curriculum, it is easy to see how it can evolve and spread: it would become like a commercially-owned internet platform for which any team in the world could build additional ‘apps’, where new developers would use the same language and the same set of basic patterns. Innovation would happen in terms of new areas, new complex patterns, and new teaching methods.
The commercial package as a whole could then be marketed and managed to reach millions of students each year who would all do the same exams, replacing the ridiculous situation we have now where each university maintains its own virtually identical curriculum in terms of content. The university system as a whole would thus be made much more efficient and profitable by getting rid of the immense and pointless duplication currently in the system.
A professionalisation of social science can also be expected to transform universities and the academy.
In terms of universities, we would go to the situation where there are a few universities that develop whole integrated curricula like the one I sketched above, whilst the rest become franchises in terms of content. As with car-manufacturers, we should get a few highly experimental top-end universities that compete with new designs and philosophies, ruthlessly experimenting on their own students and offering suites of products for external local tastes. The rest should specialise in providing feed-back to individual students, organising their own field trips, and adding a bit of local content, but otherwise simply teach the content of the leaders, branded as such.
The academy would also be transformed because a unified teaching approach would go a long way to break down the unnecessary silos between the many sub-disciplines. The students who are taught the unifying language and set of ideas would simply no longer respect the barriers to entry between groups. This should make it far easier to communicate and learn from each other. It would then become visible how little real innovation there has been to the basic curriculum in some areas and how much duplication there is in terms of research and ideas between areas. In turn, this should down the line lead to far fewer social scientists in academia, with perchance a growth of them elsewhere, such as in policy institutes and for-profit enterprises.
It can be done and embryonic steps in this direction can be seen across the world by different teams and individuals. The CoreEconomics project for instance enforces a single language and the Playconomics project uses virtual reality to great effect. Yet there is no attempt anywhere to truly scale all this up and to destroy the silos that constrain social science. The key problem is not so much the intellectual challenge or even the costs, but the current incentives of both scientists and administrators.