Ethics, Economics, and Financial Literacy
An interview with Mrs. Alicia Rodriguez, Economics and Financial Literacy Coordinator
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Can you tell us a bit about your new position as the Economics and Financial Literacy Coordinator?
Yes, it is a new position, and it is under the “ethics” umbrella of the school’s strategic plan. The hope is that we approach the program holistically to meet the needs of the strategic plan as well as the mission – “Leading Through Ethics.” So, what does that mean to empower students through ethics, and how do we use an economic lens to do that? A lot of what we’re hoping to do is introduce the language of trade-offs, because that is really the decision-making process in the Ethics Institute. For example, if I choose this one thing, what am I giving up?
What do you see as the top one or two ethical issues you see in economics and financial literacy?
That’s a big question! I think every concept that exists in an economic space can be looked at with an ethical lens. I was a part of early conversations in the Ethics Institute around the ethics of social media and how it’s changing the way we think. There are these math-powered algorithms that keep us hooked into something so that more dollars can be generated, and that prompts us to ask: just because we can, should we? It’s a very interesting problem to me. As technology advances, it will be more and more important to think through and notice the unintended consequences of our actions.
I think economics is about weighing trade-offs, weighing the balance between our choices. Just this morning, I was talking with Dr. Rezach and Mrs. Schwartz about the unintended consequences of banning single-use plastic bags in New Jersey. The idea was to reduce plastic consumption, but our behavior of how we purchase goods hasn’t changed – we want to buy things online, have things delivered to our homes, but how are those goods transported then? We’re now seeing the unintended consequences of that ban, which is less plastic, but many, many more reusable bags.
Financial decisions are another layer of this. I think economics and financial literacy are two separate concepts. Financial literacy is about the tools of personal finance and empowers people to make more informed choices about their money, and those choices are really those trade-offs, and that’s more of the economic lens. It’s all layered. I think the coolest part of this program is it’s reimagining what it means to be an economic thinker.
As I’m hearing you talk about the program, it seems to me that pairing economics and ethics has the potential to make certain ethical issues more tangible for students. These are ethical and economic questions that are happening in real time, like the plastic bag ban you mentioned.
Right, it poses questions that I think students need to learn to think through. What will one action do and what is the tradeoff? When you think about a trade-off in economics, you think about what are the benefits of the two choices you have. When you choose one, you get all the benefits of that one choice and you’re forgoing all the benefits of the other, that is your cost. For example, if I’m deciding between getting an electric vehicle or a gas-powered vehicle, I weigh the benefits of each. What are the environmental benefits of an electric car? Is a gas car more accessible to people? You have to think about all the ethical values that exist and weigh them. I can’t imagine teaching economics without ethics.
What is your vision for building out this program? What are some of the programs that exist or you hope to start at the different school levels?
One of the things I’m working on with a primary school teacher is a Tiny House project for fifth grade students. We’re looking to build students’ understanding of scarcity and trade-offs in this experience. We’re also going to talk about tiny houses from an ethical perspective and weigh out some ethical values involved. What are the tradeoffs of living smaller? What are the benefits? We are also exploring needs versus wants.
At the middle school level, there is the Money Matters elective that about 60% of middle school students take, which is an economics and financial literacy course that also has some ethics built into it. We’re hoping to see that course become required for all middle school students. We also have the TREP$ entrepreneurial program that has been going for a number of years and we plan to continue.
In the upper school, we’re going to see if we can build in some financial literacy components into the math courses. I’ve also talked to some history teachers, and reached out to some foreign language teachers if we can start talking about money and exchanges in language classes. I’m hoping to hear about teachers’ curriculums and help them build in lessons that have that economic or financial literacy lens so it feels like a natural inclusion. I’m also hoping to bring in speakers to talk about different concepts and generate enthusiasm around the topics.
Do you have any final thoughts you’d like to share?
II’m really eager to be a part of the fabric of ethics as we start to build out this program of economics and financial literacy. I think the combination of the two is really powerful and I think there are some great learning experiences coming up for students in different ways.
You can learn more about the Economics and Financial Literacy program on the Kent Place website: https://www.kentplace.org/academics/economics-and-financial-literacy