If you show students why economics is relevant, they will care about it — and it is relevant to every single one of us.”

Geoffrey Schneider

Professor Geoff Schneider sees economics at the root of everything, but he admits others sometimes find it abstract.

“Understanding economics helped me understand the world and how it’s structured,” Schneider says. “Economics drives so much of who we are, who we socialize with, the jobs we have. I focus on the real-world side of economics. If you show students why economics is relevant, they will care about it — and it is relevant to every single one of us.”

As an anti-apartheid activist, Schneider was in graduate school studying economic development when South Africa’s system of institutionalized racial segregation fell. The country’s economic rebirth fascinated him.

“I became interested in how you might address the problems of apartheid and build a good economic system that benefits the majority of people,” Schneider says. “I’ve been studying that for almost 30 years.”

Merely abandoning apartheid didn’t result in equality for all South Africans, which shows the complexity of economics.

“My students assume that because apartheid ended before they were born, everything is fundamentally equal in South Africa now,” Schneider says. “Apartheid is gone, but not the inequality. South Africa is better in terms of human rights, but the unemployment rate went from 6 percent under apartheid to 25 percent today.”

Schneider says students in the Bucknell in South Africa program enjoy examining another culture — an exercise that helps them see their own culture more clearly.

“Students easily see the wrenching situation in South Africa and that racial differences take a long time to erode, but they can have blinders on when critiquing their own society,” Schneider says. “Analyzing these forces in South Africa becomes a way to see those same forces in our own society.”

In Schneider’s courses for the Food Residential College, students learn how economics impacts the food industry, examining topics from obesity to climate change, and they learn the essential lesson of cause and effect.

“Most supermarket-processed foods are combinations of corn syrup and soybeans because they are the two most heavily subsidized things in the Farm Bill,” Schneider says. “But you can’t understand that if you don’t understand the Farm Bill.”

Schneider’s next research topic, food and sustainability, builds on his work with the Food Residential College.

“Agricultural production is responsible for about 35 percent of greenhouse gases,” Schneider says. “So that’s my next big project — we need to tackle how we grow food, and bring together food and sustainability to design a system that doesn’t destroy the planet.”

Posted January 2019