Douglas Howe was our economics tutor at Strode College in Street. Always good-humoured, he approached the A-level classes he taught with an unfailing enthusiasm; sticks of chalk would quickly be exhausted as he illustrated concepts with diagrams and charts. Supply and demand curves would spread across the board, along with figures for average and marginal costs and profits. It is forty years since those classes opened up a whole new understanding of the reality of the world in which we lived, a reality so immediate to our own lives that one of the textbooks was called Economics of the Real World, yet Mr Howe’s classes seem as apposite now as they were then.
Until going to Sixth Form college, economics had been an undiscovered country. Study of the subject had been encouraged by the staff member who had been entrusted with the task of interviewing sixteen year olds seeking college places. “What about economics? Did you think about economics as one of your subjects? The Chancellor of the Exchequer is an economist, you know.”
It was the suggestion that the Chancellor of the Exchequer was an economist that clinched the argument. Dennis Healey, a politician instantly recognizable by his bushy eyebrows, had been a major in the British Army during the Second World War and had been beachmaster at the Allied landings at Anzio, if a war hero could be interested in economics, then it must be an interesting subject. Given the performance of the British economy in the 1970s, Dennis Healey might have wished to be best remembered as a soldier rather than as an economist, but his name was persuasive enough to prompt an engagement with economic questions that has lasted for forty years.
Economic behaviour is unpredictable, sometimes it is paradoxical, sometimes it is downright perverse. A theology lecturer once commented that he hoped for the day when he might meet a one-armed economist so that the economist could not suggest one course of action and then say, “but, on the other hand.” The chief lesson of three years of studies at the London School of Economics was that there was always an “other hand” to be considered, that one should always question the assumptions of those who would say “we just need to” and that one should challenge the assertions of those who might say, “the answer is simple.”
When school curriculum planning is taking place, it seems a pity that economics does not feature more prominently. There seems something radically democratic in ordinary people being empowered to understand their situation and being equipped to ask hard questions of those in power.