Debate on the reformation of economics education

from Jack Reardon

A spirited debate on the reformation of economics education is welcomed and necessary. I am thrilled to participate in it. The key word is education: we need to educate our students and the public, rather than proselytize, which unfortunately is too often the modus operandi of neoclassical economics. Proselytization is little different from bullying and no better example of this was written by Edward Fullbrook as a chapter in my book (Handbook of Pluralist Economics Education) and has circulated on the internet. Education is our most important endeavor as human beings: t is absolutely necessary for ourselves, our planet and the future generation.

While I think we are agree on the need to educate rather than proselytize, a much more difficult question is what is education and what does it mean to educate? And a related question is what should we be teaching our students. To answer the first question, I believe the key to education is to foster doubt about existing institutions- why are they structured as is? Who benefits? Where is the locus of power? Can the existing situation be improved for all rather than the select few? Another key in education is to foster humility and respect for other views. This doesn’t mean we must agree with everyone; on the contrary, disagreement (and doubt) is necessary for the advancement of knowledge.

The goal of reforming economics education is too important to exclude either specific beliefs or a specific modus operandi. We should welcome all suggestions, and all blueprints for change, from the barely nudging to the radical reformation. A pluralist tent for reforming economics education should be broad enough to harbor all views. To exclude any one view is to mirror the myopic and self-defeating practice of neoclassical economics.

We have much to learn from each other and I don’t want to limit my own learning by restricting who I can dialogue with. I view the above distinction as artificial and counter-productive. Instead I view the comments as different degrees of the same objective: the reformation of economics education.

1 comment
  1. It is all very well agreeing that education in economics needs to be changed or to be updated, but without somebody putting their finger on what exactly is wrong with present-day teaching and with preasent-day models of the economy, it is unlikely that a radical change will be acceptable. Radical may not be the ideal word here, but to date the various claims are anything but radical and there seems to be no attempt to rewrite the subject from scratch so as to avoid past errors.

    There is no need for economists to take such an hypocritical view as to know that something is badly wrong and yet to somehow be unable to see what it exactly is, or to fail to institute a set of analytic steps in economic theory so as to set it right. As an outsider (I’m a retired engineer) it seems to me that the need for new-generation thinking and analysis has got no further that the student’s revolt at Harvard last year and then no further change. Nobel lauriate Dr. Richard P Friedman suggested that the “Cargo Cult Economics” of his essay in “The Plea sures of Finding Things Out” suggested that the pseudo scientific appraoch taken by the gurus of our subject today is simply unable to hold up in the light of serious criticism.

    I would suggest that part of the problem is the failure to separate micro-economics from macro-economics. Even today the macro subject is regarded as the sum of all the micro ones (in the form of the “Levithan” of Locke). In my opinion, and it comes from other similar kind of situations in engineering and physics situations, this is not sufficiently close to the reality as to be acceptable. Macroeconomics should be about how the aggregate of related activities may be effective in influencing the response to them within what is a system of role-playing agents or entities. Edxcuse me but I see it as a kind of social engineering which meeds to be envisaged at large rather than split into specific parts for examination.

    To this end I have written a book that hopefully will soon become available and which looks broadly at the “big picture” as an engineer might tackle a closed system. What I find is that the obvious need for greater care in definitions and statements of assumptions already provides some improved logical ways for presenting the basic material. Once this has been digested there are a munber of stages in the develppmet of the theory which lead the student or teacher along somewhat familiar paths, but with a twist in that they are all associated with the fully integrated system. It is later found that the need for decision-making might leave our subject a bit too indefinate, however a serious look at the logistics of this process can also lead to some sensible understanding about how the influence of a disturbance should be explained in its influence on the system at large. This model is a tool for later analysis rather than a means of direct government policy.

    I could go on, my main point is that its about time that others appart from myself can, could and should begin to re-write the subject of macroeconomics from the beginning, without the need to throw away too much of the past techniques and methods but without taking for granted many of the things which need to be assumed and stated first.

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