Let it go: economics is a dish best served Frozen

US economists talk about attempts to liven up teaching of their subject with lyrics from popular music

November 17, 2015
Mark Scott and Paul Lipson in Fiddler on the Roof
Source: Corbis
String theory: Fiddler on the Roof is about ‘poverty and income inequality’

There’s really only one thing to do about a “sunk cost”, a financial loss that cannot be recovered: let it go.

That’s what economics teaches. So does the annoyingly memorable song of the same name from the animated Disney film Frozen – now a musical.

This is what gave Matt Rousu an idea: to teach economics using Broadway song lyrics.

The economics professor at Susquehanna University has created an entire website, BroadwayEconomics.com, that uses lyrics from musicals to teach concepts related to money, from human capital (You Gotta Have a Gimmick, Gypsy) to poverty and income inequality (If I Were a Rich Man, Fiddler on the Roof) to entrepreneurship (pretty much anything from Kinky Boots).

“A lot of the concepts in economics are not the easiest to get, but students will remember the lyrics of a song, or they’ll remember a popular television show,” Professor Rousu said. “And I like the idea of my students seeing that economics is everywhere.”

That includes in Shakespeare, whose play The Merchant of Venice is used to teach students about usury, and other popular music, which Susan Glanz, professor of administration and economics at St. John’s University, in New York, uses to teach a required course that all students –  including those not planning to specialise in economics – need to take.

“They view economics as very hard, very complicated. So to keep their attention in class, I and everybody else tries to use all kinds of tools,” Professor Glanz said.

She teaches banking, for instance, with the Mary Poppins’ song Fidelity Fiduciary Bank, and tax policy with the 1966 Beatles hit the Taxman: “Should 5 per cent appear too small/Be thankful I don’t take it all/‘Cause I’m the taxman/Yeah, I’m the taxman.”

Students are required, after listening to the music, to research the top marginal tax rate over time, in several countries, and how governments avoid progressive tax structures for fear of driving out the wealthy.

And while Professor Glanz said that she doesn’t have empirical evidence of whether the lyrics improve their comprehension or memory of economics concepts, fewer students drop the course than when she teaches it in the conventional way.

One other professor, Rod Raehsler of Clarion University, in Pennsylvania, has found that using music, including Pink Floyd’s Money, raised his students’ performance in economics classes.

Education majors who are required to take economics had at least slightly higher attendance and test grades when these lyrics were incorporated into the curriculum than their counterparts in other courses.

Yet another scholar, G. Dirk Mateer, senior lecturer at the University of Arizona, has a website listing (and collecting from contributors) all kinds of popular culture references that can be used to help teach students the principles of economics, including films from Moneyball to A Beautiful Mind.

The effectiveness of this is not an indication that economics “is not exciting enough as a subject”, Professor Rousu said. “But many students taking economics for the first time really don’t have any idea what they’re coming into. It’s another way a student might be able to learn a topic that can be tough for some people to learn, in a very non-threatening way.”

A Broadway enthusiast himself, who posts selfies on Twitter from New York’s Times Square, he added: “Hey, I’m an economist. I went and got a doctorate. I think economics is really exciting and fun. But not everybody agrees with me, let’s face it. But it is neat that you find it in Shakespeare and in Broadway lyrics.”

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Print headline: Let it go: economics is a dish best served Frozen, say singing scholars

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