13 April 2010
An innovative teaching program is proving that ethics and economics do work hand-in-hand. By encouraging empathy for the poor and disadvantaged, Gordon Menzies is helping students discover the ‘human side’ of the international economy.
Australia has long been called ‘the lucky country’, and for many, it is.
However, Associate Professor in Economics in the School of Finance and Economics Gordon Menzies believes it’s important for students to understand hardship.
Since starting at UTS in 2003, Menzies has encouraged the 50 to 100 third-year Bachelor of Business students undertaking his international economics class each year, to empathise with the human aspects of poverty and deprivation. They do this by living as cheaply as possible for one week and by taking part in the World Vision 40 Hour Famine.
“When I was designing the course I was thinking about how to make students discuss poverty in a way that was not just an intellectual exercise. I was trying to think of a way that made it a bit more real for them,” says Menzies.
Within weeks of starting the subject, Menzies requires students to spend a week in “self-imposed financial difficulty”. Each student journals their experience in an attempt to understand what it’s like to be on the losing end of economic forces and to suggest policies for the alleviation of poverty.
“It’s very interesting because many of the students report they become aware that their lifestyles are actually quite affluent,” says Menzies. “A lot of them report they are able to cut their expenditures quite a bit and it makes a real impact on them.”
Next, students are required to take part in either the 40 Hour Famine or to devise an optimal response plan for people asking for money on the street.
“I chose these tasks because I want students to actually feel empathy for the poor and powerless. The advantage of the 40 Hour Famine is that it has guidelines based on many years of experience. For those unable to go without food, the second activity still requires them to think about something close to home,” says Menzies.
Students then write an essay connecting their experience to economic theory. Those who participated in the 40 Hour Famine write about world poverty, while the remaining students discuss debt forgiveness.
While Menzies is careful to guide students away from making irrational arguments based purely on emotion, he believes this kind of engagement can be an effective teaching tool.
“The more emotionally engaged somebody is with something, the more motivated they are to learn about it. So I think it’s important from that point of view and also I think it’s important because this is a very unequal world and many people just simply don’t experience deprivation. It’s a good life experience for them regardless of its educational benefits.”
Marianna Lopert, who recently undertook the international economics class, agrees. “The experience allowed me to gain an insight, albeit a very brief and inadequate one, into the practical experience of economic inequality and to engage with the discomforts of poverty.
“It was a rewarding assignment whose unconventional focus made it more interesting and engaging for students – it was out of the ordinary, not just your regular research assignment, but one with an informative and interactive twist.”
Menzies believes teaching students “thought with passion” will “make UTS graduates better employees and better citizens.
“Economics is a social science so it should be undertaken with some awareness of people. That might sound a little bit odd but some economic analysis is so abstract and mathematical that you do wonder whether the effects on people really matter.”
Instead of just looking at numbers on a spreadsheet, for example those that denote income per capita, Menzies’ method allows students to envisage what poverty and affluence actually look like.
In her ‘deprivation diary’, Lopert wrote, "I was made aware of the fact that everyday things that I take for granted, such as being able to listen to music and read books, are the entertainment of the relatively affluent in the world. These items cost money to buy and enjoy and are not by any means necessities, but are often associated with the process of personal development, education, enlightenment and self-realisation.
“All-encompassing poverty reduces us to being controlled by others and other forces, thereby reducing our sense of hope, motivation to be able to control and influence our future destiny, and willingness to participate actively in civic life and society.”
Menzies says, “It’s good for economics as a discipline to think hard about distribution, how things are split up between people, and when events like the global financial crisis happen, who are the people that lose.”
Last year, Menzies received an Australian Learning and Teaching Council citation for inspiring and challenging students to understand these diverse perspectives.
“It was flattering. I was pleased for myself but I was also pleased for my school and the university. The School of Finance and Economics has been very supportive of teaching in general and my teaching in particular,” says Menzies.
“I think it also reflects UTS’s support for teaching and the priority it gives to providing resources.”
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Photographer: Joanne Saad