Towards a pluralist economics education!

By heterodox economicsMarc Morgan

Students of the economic science from now 30 countries are leading a much-awaited intellectual rebellion against the current teaching establishment. ‘The International Student Initiative for Pluralism in Economics’, of which I myself am a participant, has gained much international press coverage, and the support of notable academic economists, including Robert Skidelsky, Ha-Joon Chang, Thomas Piketty, James Galbraith and Steve Keen, among others. This grassroots student movement has a simple objective: to broaden the economics curriculum in terms of the theories and methodologies that are taught, so that students receive a ‘pluralist’ education in the discipline.

This hardly seems to be a matter of contention for an outside observer. It is self-evident that proper mastery of a subject should involve acquaintance with the multiple theories that have defined its existence. This should be especially the case for subjects with no linear progression in the explanation and thus prediction of its objects’ behavior (i.e. those subjects within the social sciences – economics, sociology, psychology, politics). In the sphere of the social sciences, there is no ‘creative destruction’ in the theoretical process, as there is in the natural sciences, where new theories build on from old theories, eventually replacing the old theories. This means that there should not be only one way to learn economics. Relying on just one theoretical lens from which to look at the world severely limits what can be observed, explained and hence anticipated. This is emphatically conveyed in the overwhelming majority of economists, trained exclusively in the neo-classical school of economic thought, who failed to foresee the latest financial crisis.

Similarly, there should not be only one way to do economics. Current graduate programs in economics mainly train their students to become empirical statisticians or applied mathematicians, implying that the only things economists should be able to do in their research or policy-oriented practice is to manipulate averages and probabilities or mathematically model economic behavior. As Ha-Joon Chang has correctly noted, economics has over time come to be defined by its ‘tools of analysis’ (the statistical technique known as ‘econometrics’ and mathematical optimization) rather than by its ‘object of inquiry’ (the economy as it actually exists in different countries and the welfare of real people that comprise it). This can be easily seen from picking up any one of the leading academic economics journals – to qualify for publication, researchers must spend more written space on technicalities than on their objects of inquiry. And it is the trends in research that determine the trends in teaching, given that our teachers are all researchers first and foremost. It seems that unless researchers open up their own ways of investigating and theorizing, the teaching they impart to their students will not change. This said however, we are right to be skeptical of change coming from this source given that the most severe financial and economic crisis since the Great Depression has not been able to alter the research and pedagogical patterns that contributed to its formation.

The manifesto that follows is an attempt by students, the world over, to overcome the widespread inertia that appears to exist within the economics profession, especially the academic profession. Neither ‘big data’ nor complex functions should be substitutes for thinking.

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It is not only the world economy that is in crisis. The teaching of economics is in crisis too, and this crisis has consequences far beyond the university walls. What is taught shapes the minds of the next generation of policymakers, and therefore shapes the societies we live in. We, 42 associations of economics students from 19 different countries, believe it is time to reconsider the way economics is taught. We are dissatisfied with the dramatic narrowing of the curriculum that has taken place over the last couple of decades. This lack of intellectual diversity does not only restrain education and research. It limits our ability to contend with the multidimensional challenges of the 21st century – from financial stability, to food security and climate change. The real world should be brought back into the classroom, as well as debate and a pluralism of theories and methods. This will help renew the discipline and ultimately create a space in which solutions to society’s problems can be generated.

United across borders, we call for a change of course. We do not claim to have the perfect answer, but we have no doubt that economics students will profit from exposure to different perspectives and ideas. Pluralism could not only help to fertilize teaching and research and reinvigorate the discipline. Rather, pluralism carries the promise to bring economics back into the service of society. Three forms of pluralism must be at the core of curricula: theoretical, methodological and interdisciplinary.

Theoretical pluralism emphasizes the need to broaden the range of schools of thought represented in the curricula. It is not the particulars of any economic tradition we object to. Pluralism is not about choosing sides, but about encouraging intellectually rich debate and learning to critically contrast ideas. Where other disciplines embrace diversity and teach competing theories even when they are mutually incompatible, economics is often presented as a unified body of knowledge. Admittedly, the dominant tradition has internal variations. Yet, it is only one way of doing economics and of looking at the real world. This is unheard of in other fields; nobody would take seriously a degree program in psychology that focuses only on Freudianism, or a politics program that focuses only on state socialism. An inclusive and comprehensive economics education should promote balanced exposure to a variety of theoretical perspectives, from the commonly taught neoclassically-based approaches to the largely excluded classical, post-Keynesian, institutional, ecological, feminist, Marxist and Austrian traditions – among others. Most economics students graduate without ever encountering such diverse perspectives in the classroom.

Furthermore, it is essential that core curricula include courses that provide context and foster reflexive thinking about economics and its methods per se, including philosophy of economics and the theory of knowledge. Also, because theories cannot be fully understood independently of the historical context in which they were formulated, students should be systematically exposed to the history of economic thought and to the classical literature on economics as well as to economic history. Currently, such courses are either non-existent or marginalized to the fringes of economics curricula.

Methodological pluralism stresses the need to broaden the range of tools economists employ to grapple with economic questions. It is clear that maths and statistics are crucial to our discipline. But all too often students learn to master quantitative methods without ever discussing if and why they should be used, the choice of assumptions and the applicability of results. Also, there are important aspects of economics which cannot be understood using exclusively quantitative methods: sound economic inquiry requires that quantitative methods are complemented by methods used by other social sciences. For instance, the understanding of institutions and culture could be greatly enhanced if qualitative analysis was given more attention in economics curricula. Nevertheless, most economics students never take a single class in qualitative methods.

Finally, economics education should include interdisciplinary approaches and allow students to engage with other social sciences and the humanities. Economics is a social science; complex economic phenomena can seldom be understood if presented in a vacuum, removed from their sociological, political, and historical contexts. To properly discuss economic policy, students should understand the broader social impacts and moral implications of economic decisions.

While approaches to implementing such forms of pluralism will vary from place to place, general ideas for implementation might include:

  • Hiring instructors and researchers who can bring theoretical and methodological diversity to economics programs;
  • Creating texts and other pedagogical tools needed to support pluralist course offerings;
  •  Formalizing collaborations between social sciences and humanities departments or establishing special departments that could oversee interdisciplinary programs blending economics and other fields.

Change will be difficult – it always is. But it is already happening. Indeed, students across the world have already started creating change step by step. We have filled lecture theatres in weekly lectures by invited speakers on topics not in the curriculum; we have organised reading groups, workshops, conferences; we have analysed current syllabuses and drafted alternative programs; we have started teaching ourselves and others the new courses we would like to be taught. We have founded university groups and built networks both nationally and internationally. 

Change must come from many places. So now we invite you – students, economists, and non-economists – to join us and create the critical mass needed for change. See Support us to show your support and connect with our growing networks. Ultimately, pluralism in economics education is essential for healthy public debate. It is a matter of democracy.

Signed, the member organizations of the International Student Initiative for Pluralism in Economics:

  • Sociedad de Economía Crítica Argentina y Uruguay, Argentina
  • The PPE Society, La Trobe University, Australia
  • Society for Pluralist Economics Vienna, Austria
  • Nova Ágora, Brazil
  • Mouvement étudiant québécois pour un enseignement pluraliste de l’économie, Canada
  • Estudios Nueva Economía, Chile
  • Grupo de estudiantes y egresados de la Facultad de Economía y Negocios de la Universidad de Chile, Chile
  • Det Samfundsøkonomiske Selskab (DSS), Denmark
  • Post-Crash Economics Society Essex, England
  • Cambridge Society for Economic Pluralism, England
  • Better Economics UCLU, England
  • Post-Crash Economics Society Manchester, England
  • SOAS Open Economics Forum, England
  • Alternative Thinking for Economics Society, Sheffield University, England
  • LSE Post-Crash Economics England
  • Pour un Enseignement Pluraliste de l’Economie dans le Supérieur (PEPS-Economie), France
  • Netzwerk Plurale Ökonomik (Network for Pluralist Economics), Germany
  • Oikos Köln, Germany
  • Real World Economics, Mainz, Germany
  • Kritische WissenschaftlerInnen Berlin, Germany
  • Arbeitskreis Plurale Ökonomik, München, Germany
  • Oikos Leipzig, Germany
  • Was ist Ökonomie, Berlin, Germany
  • Impuls. für eine neue Wirtschaft, Erfurt, Germany
  • Ecoation, Augsburg, Germany
  • Kritische Ökonomen, Frankfurt, Germany
  • Arbeitskreis Plurale Ökonomik, Hamburg, Germany
  • Real World Economics, Heidelberg, Germany
  • Stundent HUB Weltethos Institut Tübingen, Germany
  • LIE – Lost in Economics e.V., Regensburg, Germany
  • Javadhpur University Heterodox Economics Association, India
  • Economics Student Forum – Tel Aviv, Israel
  • Economics Student Forum – Haifa (Rethinking Economics), Israel
  • Rethinking Economics Italia, Italy
  • Grupo de Estudiantes por la Enseñanza Plural de la Economía, UNAM, Mexico
  • Oeconomicus Economic Club MGIMO, Russia
  • Glasgow University Real World Economics Society, Scotland
  • Movement for Pluralistic Economics, Slovenia
  • Post-Crash Barcelona, Spain
  • Asociación de Estudiantes de Económicas de la Universidad Autónoma de Madrid, Spain
  • Estudantes de Económicas e Empresariais, Universidade de Santiago de Compostela, Spain
  • Lunds Kritiska Ekonomer, Sweden
  • Handels Students for Sustainability, Sweden
  • PEPS-Helvetia, Switzerland
  • Rethinking Economics, UK
  • Rethinking Economics New York, United States
  • Sociedad de Economia Critica, Argentina and Uruguay 

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