Why We Should Prioritize Prosocial Skills. (especially in the economics classroom)
If the purpose of education is to support a flourishing society, then measurable Prosocial Skills should be a primary student learning objective.
Research shows that economics education promotes selfish, antisocial behavior. It is beyond time to re-design “the dismal science”, and make it regenerative, of nature and of culture.
Reading the text to uncover ideologies to unleash ideas.
Does this image look scary to you?
“This man’s decision to purchase clothing exemplifies how people make choices when using limited resources to fulfill competing wants and needs.”
Imagine being a senior in your high school economics textbook challenged you to consider the Big Issues- such as whether or not to purchase clothing. What a bore!
We can only hope the question might at least inspire a new generation of clothing-optional college students. And while not the point, the clothing is indeed optional. Replace clothing with food, housing, or health, and the fundamental economic meme remains the same:
SCARCITY is SCARY! (and REAL!)
It doesn’t matter how wholesome and happy the clean-cut white guy in the jeans jacket looks. The effect is frightening: scarcity. Finite resources. Infinite wants and needs. Scary. Thus, scarcity triggers the amygdala into a stress response, commonly known as “fight, flight, or freeze.”
Chronically existing in this state of stress increases self-interested and violent behavior, depression, and lowers cognitive capacity, with especially important implications for education. If scarcity is real, stress is real, if stress is real- and chronic, we experience the worst of ourselves.
The current economic model is not only destructive to brain function, it has our planet and people heading in a rapidly declining downward spiral of death and destruction.
What could be more depressing than that? We are all living in a state of economic trauma. Name it, it’s economic trauma. Addiction, Narcissism, Depression, Eco-Anxiety, ACEs… Just studying the stuff actually nudges students toward more selfish behavior.
Something is not going well, and while we argue about what is real or not, we lost the plot! And blaming back and forth is not a direction.
We must go inward, onward, and upward. And to where is the land of unicorns and rainbows? Getting there isn’t a destination, it is a process of continuous adaptation and optimization.
In the economics classroom, we can at least begin with the North Star: teaching toward Prosocial Skills. Humanity is defined by our social communication abilities. Let us not assume it is just in our DNA to not communicate well. It is in our DNA to communicate. What is the message, what is the medium, what is the meaning, what do we want?
Unlike teaching the physical laws of science, economic laws are human-made, not the result of physical laws. If there are pain points due to flaws in the existing economic design, pain points like disrespect for people and place, wouldn’t teaching students to memorize its rules be further traumatizing? Instead, we can shift the focus on our year on how can we nudge economic design toward regeneration. And so, by teaching how to co-design actions that result in measurable peace, prosperity, regeneration, and wellbeing for all, we have re-designed economics education toward prosocial behavior.
Since economic laws are human-made, are we actually teaching rigorous scientific principles or in actuality an antiquated patriarchal ideology? What is the evidence to show that we should stick to the script? As teachers, isn’t our job to increase curiosity, compassion, and the ability to co-create a better world? How about if we focus attention on providing evidence of that?
The evidence includes the Prosocial Skills mentioned above, curiosity, compassion, and co-creativity. But also compassion, self-compassion, a sense of connection, a sense of coherence, and cultural consciousness- described by perspective taking, intellectual humility, and respectful curiosity, and conversational conscientiousness (which might include a basic understanding of the principles of NVC.)
So we use textbooks to uncover ideologies. Most economics textbooks are identical, focusing on scarcity from page 1. Here is the first page of another textbook, using a different clothed model to represent the same concept. (I’ll bet this one was not paid for their economic contribution to textbook sales.)
The textbook reads, “Homeless people are a stark reminder that scarcity of resources is real. If you still do not believe that scarcity is a problem, consider the following: Does everyone require food to eat? Does everyone need a decent place to live? Does everyone have access to healthcare? In every country in the world, there are people who are hungry, homeless (for example, those who call park benches their beds, as Figure 1.2 shows), and in need of healthcare, just to focus on a few critical goods and services. Why is this the case? It is because of scarcity. Let’s delve into the concept of scarcity a little deeper, because it is crucial to understanding economics.”
Let’s do that. Let’s delve into the concept of scarcity a little deeper, because it is crucial to understanding not only some of the fundamental design flaws of our economic system but also how those design flaws have influenced our cultural lens.
If the economic design is a human design, students can learn to think like designers, and consider how to design for Life. To think like a designer, we first notice the pain points. In the example above (and all around us), the pain points could be any of the scary symptoms of scarcity: hunger, homelessness, health inequality, (or nudity?) According to the design-thinking model, as represented below, our thinking begins with empathy. Shoot. Empathy. But our economy disincentivizes that shared and instinctual prosocial quality that forms the basis of coherent cognition. Obama even verified our economy is in a state of empathy deficit. So using Prosocial Design Strategies, and growing Prosocial Skills, we increase our empathy and therefore, our design capacity. Finally. When was the last time you saw a virtuous cycle set in motion?
In an economics textbook, it is not just an irresponsible assertion that because we see homelessness and hunger, we are looking at unavoidable aspects of reality. To begin this way is morally reprehensible, if not pathological. Who told you that no one would work if they didn’t have the fear of losing everything.
So let’s redesign the goal of the economics classroom. Let’s design for prosocial skills, and the goal of the economy to design for peace, prosperity, regeneration, and wellbeing for all.