Juvenoia | The inadequacy of an economics degree  

A 22-year-old master’s student weighs in on the subject, classroom teaching in India and what he’s learnt from his internship experiences

The first lesson of economics is scarcity: there is never enough of anything to fully satisfy all those who want it.

This is where American economist Thomas Sowell's words resonate with economics student Ajay Rajan. The 22-year-old strongly feels that there's scarce data in India and that the government should do more to collect and make public information on a range of sectors. When Ajay entered the gates of Christ University in Bengaluru last year, it was because he was inspired by economist Steven Levitt and journalist Stephen J Dubner's bestseller Super Freakonomics. “When I read that book, I thought, 'Wow, this is what I want to do.' But now, especially after having joined college and watching a lot of YouTube videos and reading a lot more about economics, economic policies and economists, I realise that what motivates me now (to study economics) is very different,” he says. “A lot of it has to do with the way people think about economics... Even the way economics is defined as a study, and there are many definitions. The most common one is that it's a study of unlimited wants and limited resources.”

After he graduated from Mumbai's VG Vaze College, Ajay wanted to move out of his hometown and experience living on his own. “I applied to international universities, and only then did I realise how inadequate my knowledge of economics was to pursue those courses,” he says. “A bachelor's degree in economics doesn't teach you much (to be able to qualify), you don't learn mathematical economics, statistical economics – and these have become skills to have.”

Bengaluru presented a good opportunity and while he has befriended the city, he has yet to make peace about navigating through its traffic. Nevertheless, academic work at Christ University, says this mixed martial arts enthusiast, entails rigour. “We are expected to do a lot more and know more (than just what's being taught in class),” says Ajay. “Our teachers and faculty are good, but it's just that YouTube and (massive open online courses such as) Coursera spoil you. You can see the difference in how academic-economists abroad teach the same subjects (as those we are learning here) but speak a very different language. For instance, they openly criticise government policies, or they will talk about different schools of economics, including where economic stances originate – the philosophy of economics so to say. These are the kind of conversations we'd like to have in class but are rarely forthcoming.”

To this end, Ajay is happy to chart his own path for answers. He reads books, online articles, watches videos, takes online courses and listens to podcasts in an attempt to widen his horizon. And he isn't blind to the inherent ironies of the subject. “Man is said to be homo economicus, that is we will logically try to maximise utility as consumers and maximise profit as producers. But this is based on the assumption that we have ALL the possible information. This is never the case... it's the ideal case scenario. This is the biggest problem in economics – it's studied as an ideal subject, which it is not.”

He mulls and almost decisively concludes that one does't learn much by way of classroom economics. “You cannot draw a straight line saying this is how a firm functions in economic theory and this is how a firm functions in reality. Maybe there is a very thin line that you can draw to connect them, which will be based on certain principles, but we don't really see (those principles) in reality.”

This notion of different realities existing in parallel is something Ajay has encountered earlier too. During a three-month internship, following his graduation, he worked with 17,000 Feet Foundation in Leh, Ladakh. And while he was prepared for the hardships of staying in the cold desert, he recalls that the kind of impoverishment he witnessed there was something he was unprepared for. “Growing up in Bombay, the idea of poverty is not alien to you. But the reality hits home in Ladakh – you have basic bedding, the toilets are akin to holes in the ground. The food you get is what the locals eat, which is to say there isn't a great variety, and most villages get little to no electricity supply. There's no reliable Internet connection either,” he says. Despite some hardship and consistently dull weekends, Ajay says the internship, during which he had to assist local school teachers, help set up libraries, etc, was a “mind-blowing” experience.

“What I learnt most during this time was the importance of having conversations,” he says. “You have a conversation with a little kid one morning, and the same day you have a conversation with the principal of the school. The next day you speak to the zonal officer of that area and when these conversations start taking place, you are able to help find solutions.”

(Juvenoia is a fortnightly column that sneaks a peep into the minds of 'Indian millennials' – born after the liberalisation in India and before the first iPhone released. Mail: marisha@thegoodstate.com)

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