Academic Minute Podcast

Leah Greden Mathews, University of North Carolina Asheville – Springsteen-omics: Understanding Economics Through the Songs of the Boss

On University of North Carolina Asheville Week: What can Bruce Springsteen teach is about economics?

Leah Greden Mathews, professor and chair of economics, listens in to find out.

As an applied environmental economist, Dr. Mathews’ research focuses on estimating the value of those things you can’t buy on grocery store shelves like water quality, scenic quality and cultural heritage. This work has led to over $1 million in research grants that have engaged over 40 UNC Asheville students. Dr. Mathews is a founding member of the Food for Thought cluster at UNC Asheville, a multidisciplinary faculty group teaching courses across campus that focuses on developing the students as an informed consumer of food by providing a platform for discussion of what we eat, why we eat, where our food comes from and its journey from production to consumption, and how food affects our bodies and health. As an interdisciplinary, systems-thinking teacher-scholar, Dr. Mathews is perennially engaged with students and colleagues from multiple disciplines in order to enrich her intellectual life, improve her understanding of the world, and gain new perspective.

Springsteen-omics: Understanding Economics Through the Songs of the Boss


Bruce Springsteen’s music represents the struggles and hardships of chasing the American Dream and giving voice to challenging emotions individuals may face with their economic circumstances. In the iconic first verse of “The River,” for instance, we encounter a narrator who is keenly aware of the limited economic opportunities available: “I come from down in the valley, where mister when you’re young, they bring you up to do, like your daddy done.” Here, our narrator is referring to a lack of economic mobility or the ability of children to earn more or do better than their parents – a hallmark of the American Dream that has eroded over the last decades.

Themes like these in Springsteen’s music are the inspiration for Springsteen-omics: Economics through the Songs of Bruce Springsteen, a course I co-created with my colleague Dr. Melissa Mahoney. This course introduces basic economic concepts such as income (im)mobility, class identity, unemployment, economic opportunity, social justice, and the economic trauma of everyday experience via deep listening to songs like “The River,” followed by reflections and responses. Pedagogically, this method provides students the opportunity to sit with the material before responding. It also humanizes economic themes through music, making these typically quantitative concepts more qualitative or narrative and thus easier to relate to and understand.

Our approach is not only impactful, as documented in our analysis, but practical. Listening to a song, then closely reading the lyrics, and listening again, allows students to engage with challenging content in an approachable manner. Connecting with the song invites students to sit with and explore their emotional responses to music–and thus its economic content–which supports critical thinking and mindful engagement with the ever-changing and often-challenging economic conditions that surround us.

Read More:
[Journal of Economic Education] – Springsteen-omics


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