I've been teaching principles of economics to students since 1985 and using The Economic Way of Thinking by Paul Heyne the entire time. I am now an author on that text (along with my good friend Dave Prychitko), but my bias toward that text for introducing economics to college students was well established before I signed on to keep the book up to date after Paul's unfortunate passing.
Heyne has two meta messages in that book --- one for professors and one for students. For the professors, the basic idea is that we overteach economics to students and thus don't get the basic principles across to them during their one introduction to the subject. There is a logic to this, many principles teachers are either brand new PhDs or graduate students and the incentives they face is to publish not be an effective teacher. As a result they want to teach what they most recently learned and just boil it down to an undergraduate level. So you get a fresh PhD teaching PhD level microeconomics without the proofs. And 1 out of 100 students get it. The other 99 walk away either thinking economics is worthless or boring, and perhaps both. Heyne says to us, guys focus on first principles (opportunity costs and spontaneous order) and the interpretation of a wide variety of human relationships that can best be explained with the use of these principles and you will make the subject matter of economics come alive and be exciting to students and leave them wanting more. This strategy has worked for me as in every school I have taught in (GMU, Oakland, NYU and Manhattan College) I have been able to get students to become economics majors and eventually pursue graduate study in economics after hooking them with the principles course. I am sure that there are some students who leave my class believing economics is worthless and boring, but I think my percentage is better than 1 in 100.
As for the students, Heyne's message is simple as well. Allow yourself to be curious about the world, and to find the mystery in the mundane. Buying a cucumber at the local grocery shop, the shirt on your back, and the shoes on your feet are all fascinating subjects to explore using the economic way of thinking. Finding the hidden pattern in the buzz of daily life is what we will do in the first 6 weeks of class. If you allow yourself to be amazed by the world around you, then you will do well in studying economics. Adam Smith explained the mystery by reference to the common-woolen coat on the back of the day laborer; F. A. Hayek found it in the movements of the price of tin; Milton Friedman borrowing from Leonard Read used the pencil. James Buchanan used to tell us in class that the number one educational role of the economists is to teach the principles of spontaneous order, and I believe that on this issue, as on so many others, Buchanan is 100% correct.
Tim Harford's The Undercover Economist has just been published. It is not a principles of economics text, but it is perhaps the best book currently available in its genre. In my opinion there is more economic intuition behind this book than Freakonomics -- a judgment which might shock some readers. But the persistent and consistent applications of opportunity cost reasoning and explaining how order emerges out of the behavior of individuals even though it is not anyone's intention to promote the overall order is revealed throughout The Undercover Economists in a vareity of illustrative stories from throughout the developed and developing world. We get stories of wonderful unintended desirable consequences within some regimes, and the horror of unintended undesirable conseuqences in others. Harford's work is one which champions "looking out the window" and making sense of what is seen through the economic way of thinking. In many ways this is what it is all about, and once you "get it" it is wonderfully addictive and transformative. Economics is the mind-quake everyone needs to make sense of the world around us, and on the basis of that understanding arrange our political, legal social and economic affairs so we can simultaneously achieve liberty, peace and prosperity.
I would like to learn what others consider the best way to excite young minds about the discipline of economics and the most effective books they have found in doing so, so comments are open.