Apr 20th 2019

Why the world is due a revolution in economics education

by Joris Tieleman

 

PhD Candidate, Erasmus University Rotterdam

 

 

 

 

Economic thinking governs much of our world. But the discipline’s teaching is stuck in the past. Centred around antiquated 19th-century models built on Newtonian physics, economics treats humans as atomic particles, rather than as social beings.

While academic research often manages to transcend this simplicity, undergraduate education does not – and the influence of these simplified ideas is carried by graduates as they go on to work in politics, media, business and the civil service.

Economists such as myself tend to speak in tightly coded jargon and mathematical models. We speak of “economic laws”, tacitly positioning these as analogous to the laws of physics. We wrap a thick layer of technical jargon around our study material and ban all moral or ethical discussions from the classroom. We attempt to take cover under the protective white lab coat of “real science”, a phenomenon described by Nobel Prize winner Friedrich Hayek as scientism.

In short, economics has become a rather quaint and highly guarded discipline. We urgently need to update economics education to change this – because economics, as taught in universities, does not reflect or speak to many of the issues of the real world, be they political, environmental or social.

The political economy

Take the tricky entanglement between politics and economics, which economists tend to try to avoid. Such an attempt is futile. Sidelining politics, history and broader ideas while teaching economics, as most professors do, is like studying the “natural” flows of water in the Netherlands without taking into account that there are people living there who are steering it, building dikes, reclaiming land and channelling the water – and ignoring that they have been doing this for thousands of years already. You can’t study the system while ignoring the people who make it.

Economists speak in numbers only, clinging to statistical data and quantitative models. We do so in the hope of looking objective. But this is counter-productive – “data” cannot tell us everything. Other social sciences such as sociology and anthropology use a broader range of methods, and consequently have a broader perspective on society. If we take our societal role of adviser on economic matters seriously, we will need to open up and adopt the insights that these other disciplines bring us about how the economy works.Politics and economics are inextricably intertwined, as Adam Smith, David Ricardo, Karl Marx knew all too well. Somehow this has been forgotten. This does not mean economists need to get political or choose sides. But it does mean that we ignore politics at our own peril – by blindsiding ourselves or dismissing it as “external stuff”, we hamper our understanding of the very system we study.

It is true that academic economists are aware of the shortcomings of their discipline. But unfortunately, this awareness of the complexity of the economic system does not necessarily extend to those who leave university after their degree. And this is what the vast majority of economics graduates do. These are the people who go on to work in big business, governments and central banks, who shape policy and create our “economic common sense”.

Educational blinders

So what sort of ideas do these undergraduate economics students take out of university and into some of the most important careers in our societies?

Concerned student groups everywhere have started to systematically map this out. Student members of the University of Manchester Post-Crash Economics Association wrote a book surveying 174 economics modules at seven leading UK universities. They found that fewer than 10% covered anything other than mainstream economics. In the Netherlands, students found that real-world problems, from climate change to inequality, were seriously treated in only 6% of all modules and that only 2% of methods courses were not focused on statistical work.

A series of subsequent curriculum review projects, including one covering 13 countries from Argentina to Israel, found similar conditions in economics programs everywhere.

Undergraduate economists all over the world learn theories from textbooks that have barely changed since the 1950s. Those theories are based on individual agents, competing in markets to maximise narrowly defined “economic utility” (for people) or profit (for firms). The principles are taught with the same certainty as Newtonian physics, and are as devoid of value judgements.

This is absurd. Clearly, there are values; mainstream economics values efficiency, markets and growth – and puts individuals over collectives. Yet undergraduates are not taught to recognise, let alone question, these values – and the consequences are serious.


Read more: Shut down business schools? Two professors debate


The models taught in our education ignore inequality, while our societies are being torn apart by it. In our classes, relentless economic growth is an unquestioned dogma, yet this same economic growth is rapidly ripping apart the ecological foundations of our world. And while we all may individually donate to charities, separate our trash and feel guilty about flying too much, we are collectively handicapped in reforming the very system that drives these problems.

Hope for change

There is hope for change, however. In the UK, a number of economics programmes are gradually becoming more pluralist in terms of theory and methods in response to the movement. Goldsmiths College in London, for instance, has renewed its PPE programme to include the same, and add other disciplines. And the Schumacher College in Devon now offers an Economics for Transition MSc which explicitly ties together economic and ecological systems. Meanwhile, an international accreditation system for pluralist Masters programmes is being set up.

But we need renewal on a much broader front: a new approach to economics education, one which does not hide behind the self-imposed limits of 19th century physics-style modelling, but instead considers the societal role of economists seriously. We need an economics which focuses on the entire economic system and which acknowledges all relevant sources of knowledge, rather than apprehensively clinging to statistical data. And one which addresses the issues that are most pressing for society, not those that comfortably fit within its mainstream method.

Let’s hope that we don’t have to wait for the present generation of economists to retire before this can happen. By that time, it might be too late.

Joris Tieleman, PhD Candidate, Erasmus University Rotterdam

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Browse articles by author

More Essays

Jul 31st 2020
EXTRACT: "From a Kantian standpoint discrimination based on race – or religion, or gender – is fundamentally wrong. It is wrong, first of all, because it is dehumanizing, a denial of human dignity. When I racially discriminate, I am denying the person’s intrinsic self-worth, I am, in fact, denying their very right to exist, whether I know it or not. The moral law demands that I treat every individual as a free person equal to everyone else. If the moral law grants each of us a kind of infinite worth, it does not grant someone greater worth than anyone else."
Jul 12th 2020
EXTRACT: "Remember, your wellbeing is extremely important when supporting someone with depression. Take time for self-care so you can model positive behaviours and be replenished enough to provide this crucial support."
Jul 4th 2020
EXTRACT: "--- Nobody is more dangerous than he who imagines himself pure in heart, for his purity, by definition, is unassailable. --- Author James Baldwin’s words, written in the America of the late 1950s."
Jun 29th 2020
EXTRACT: "Numerous studies have shown that children who grow up in more deprived neighbourhoods tend to have worse physical health as adults compared to those raised in more affluent areas. This is the case even when researchers take into account family income and education, and whether or not parents have major illnesses. In order to address this health disparity, researchers need to understand how those living in disadvantaged neighbourhoods end up with worse health outcomes. Our team’s latest study has highlighted one potential way your childhood neighbourhood may influence your health for years to come. It might do so through changing how the activity of your genes is regulated."
Jun 29th 2020
EXTRACT: "Ruth Poniarski is a painter and the author of Journey of the Self: Memoir of an Artist (Warren Publishing, 2020), in which she tells the story of her decade long struggle with mental illness, a “spiraling malady” which led her into a “pattern of psychosis”. I recently had the opportunity to talk with Poniarski about her life and work, and how she eventually overcame her demons."
Jun 27th 2020
EXTRACT: "I know I’m good in a couple of things, really good in a few things, and that’s enough. My confidence is big enough that I can really let people grow next to me, it’s no problem. I need experts around me. It’s really very important that you are empathetic, that you try to understand the people around you, and that you give real support to the people around you."
Jun 27th 2020
An essay about the "the enormously influential 1940 'Head of Christ' painting by evangelical Warner E. Sallman" pictured below.
Jun 17th 2020
EXTRACT: "The diverse, non-human life forms that live in our guts – known as our microbiome – are crucial to our health. A disrupted balance of these contribute to a range of disorders and diseases, including obesity, diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease. It could even affect our mental health..... It’s well known that the microbes living in our guts are altered through diet. For example, including dietary fibre and dairy products in our diets encourages the growth of beneficial bacteria. But mounting evidence suggests that exercise can also modify the types of bacteria that reside within our guts."
Jun 13th 2020
EXTRACT: "Bonhoeffer’s life holds an important lesson for us today, regardless of our religious affiliation or lack thereof. And simply put it is this: you are called upon; you are called on behalf of your neighbor. When you are called to be responsible that is not an obligation which you can decline, discharge or acquit yourself of – it is an infinite responsibility, a “forever commitment” as Charles Blow recently put it. And we all must be prepared to make any sacrifice necessary when we are called."
Jun 11th 2020
EXTRACT: "People differ substantially in how much they’re affected by experiences in their lives. Some people seem to be more affected by daily stress, or the loss of someone close to them. On the other hand, some people seem to get through the same experiences relatively unscathed. Similarly, some people benefit strongly from counselling, or having a support system of close family and friends. Others seem better able to manage on their own. But understanding why some people are more sensitive than others isn’t just a question of how they were raised, and the experiences they’ve been through. In fact, previous research has found that some people in general seem more sensitive to what they experience – and some are generally less sensitive."
Jun 7th 2020
EXTRACT: " The root causes of anthropogenic climate change – which has led to the endangering of countless species across the globe – cannot be adequately grasped in isolation from the technological application of modern science. While Swedish activist Greta Thunberg was certainly justified in calling upon American legislators to “unite behind the science,” neither can we overlook the culpability of science in bringing about the environmental crisis. "
May 23rd 2020
EXTRACT: "The QAnon movement began in 2017 after someone known only as Q posted a series of conspiracy theories about Trump on the internet forum 4chan. QAnon followers believe global elites are seeking to bring down Trump, whom they see as the world’s only hope to defeat the “deep state.” OKM is part of a network of independent congregations (or ekklesia) called Home Congregations Worldwide (HCW). The organization’s spiritual adviser is Mark Taylor, a self-proclaimed “Trump Prophet” and QAnon influencer with a large social media following on Twitter and YouTube."
May 23rd 2020
EXTRACT: "The aim of my research for the Understanding Unbelief programme was to investigate the worldviews of non-believers, since little is known about the diversity of these non-religious beliefs, and what psychological functions they serve. I wanted to explore the idea that while non-believers may not hold religious beliefs, they still hold distinct ontological, epistemological and ethical beliefs about reality, and the idea that these secular beliefs and worldviews provide the non-religious with equivalent sources of meaning, or similar coping mechanisms, as the supernatural beliefs of religious individuals."
May 22nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Psalm 91, for example, reassures believers that God will protect them from “the pestilence that walketh in darkness… A thousand shall fall at thy side, and ten thousand at thy right hand; but it shall not come nigh thee”.............Luther was a devout believer but insisted that religious faith had to be joined with practical, physical defences against sickness. It was a good Christian’s duty to work to keep themselves and others safe, rather than relying solely on the protection of God. "
May 22nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Evidence from this study shows clearly that eating foods rich in flavonoids over your lifetime is significantly linked to reducing Alzheimer’s disease risk. However, their consumption will be even more beneficial alongside other lifestyle changes, such as quitting smoking, managing a healthy weight and exercising."
May 5th 2020
EXTRACT: "It’s possible that the answers to questions like, “how do I live a virtuous life?” or “how do we build a good society?” are not the same as they were a few weeks ago."
May 2nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Strangely, those with strong beliefs tend to be admired. The human mind hates uncertainty, so it is comforting to be told what to think, and to form settled opinions. But it is not rational. As the philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote: “The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.”
Apr 21st 2020
Extract: "Humans, Boccaccio seems to be saying, can think of themselves as upstanding and moral – but unawares, they may show indifference to others. We see this in the 10 storytellers themselves: They make a pact to live virtuously in their well-appointed retreats. Yet while they pamper themselves, they indulge in some stories that illustrate brutality, betrayal and exploitation. Boccaccio wanted to challenge his readers, and make them think about their responsibilities to others. “The Decameron” raises the questions: How do the rich relate to the poor during times of widespread suffering? What is the value of a life? In our own pandemic, with millions unemployed due to a virus that has killed thousands, these issues are strikingly relevant.
Apr 20th 2020
Extract: "If we do not seize this crisis as a moment for transformation, then we will have lost the war. If doing so requires reviving notions of collective guilt and responsibility – including the admittedly uncomfortable view that every one of us is infinitely responsible, then so be it; as long we do not morally cop out by blaming some group as the true bearers of sin, guilt, and God’s heavy judgment. A pandemic clarifies the nature of action: that with our every act we answer to each other. In that light, we have a duty to seize this public crisis as an opportunity to reframe our mutual responsibility to one another and the world."
Apr 16th 2020
EXTRACT: "Death is the common experience which can make all members of the human race feel their common bonds and their common humanity."