Is CORE a pluralist economics curriculum?

Core (the acronym for Curriculum Open Access Resources in Economics) is a project led by professor Wendy Carlin from UCL, UK, that aims to improve the content and delivery of the economics curriculum around the world. Other remarkable economists have been and are part of this project such as Diane Coyle and Samuel Bowles.

According to the website of the project, www.core-econ.org CORE is:

“a) a global community of learners, teachers and researchers;

  1. b) a problem- motivated and interactive way to learn economics;
  2. c) bringing recent developments into the classroom;
  3. d) giving everyone the tools to understand the economics of the world around   them”.

As Mearman et al (2016: 5) explain: “CORE is a large undergraduate year one course called ‘The Economy’, which itself comprises nineteen modules on a range of topics. CORE is neither a Massive Online Course (MOOC) nor a course in the traditional sense, but an online resource, a frame to be elaborated”. According to the same authors, CORE represents both an ‘improvement’ and a ‘missed opportunity’. On the one hand, CORE employs historical and experimental data and draws on the history of economics or new branches of economics such as theory of games, covering thus a variety of topics. On the other hand, the course is rife with concepts and elements unsupported by evidence, such as utility maximization that constitute fundamental components of CORE (Mearman et al 2016).

The reactions to CORE, both from the media and the academic world, have been mixed. Whilst Birdi (2014) claims that CORE represents a transformation of economics, others consider the shift brought by CORE as insufficient and inadequate (e.g. Post Crash Economics Society (PCES) 2014; Morgan 2014; Mearman et al 2016). The extensive use of data to explain economic phenomena is recognized by Giugliano in Financial Times (2015) (https://www.ft.com/content/fc2eb464-d93d-11e4-b907-00144feab7de), who also acknowledges voices that echo the lack of radicalism in the CORE project (e.g. Rethinking Economics). John Cassidy (2017) in the New Yorker states: “The CORE approach isn’t particularly radical (students looking for expositions of Marxian economics or Modern Monetary Theory will have to look elsewhere)”.

It is not my intention here to discuss exhaustively all the details of the CORE project but to focus briefly on the level and forms of pluralism characteristic of the CORE approach and some of its members. Typically, pluralism (or a pluralist orientation) is conducive to the co-existence of a plurality of theories, methods, methodologies, approaches, models, explanations, assumptions and so on. Pluralism supposes a general tolerance of diverse points of views and conceptions of economic reality (Negru 2007, Negru 2009). Pluralism means ways of recognizing and accepting a variety of economic ideas and of schools of thought in economics and on the economics curricula (Negru 2010). Pluralism represents an attitude of openness towards theories and models that are not necessarily heterodox and engagement with them. Pedagogically, pluralism envisages the willingness to produce a diverse curriculum and the introduction of various modes to represent and interpret the economic world different than one’s own (Negru and Negru 2017).

 

Professor Carlin accepts the criticism of a lack of pluralism within the CORE project, but as stated by Giugliano in FT (2015) she has declared it is not her intention to teach a course in the history of economic thought. Of course, this implies confusion between teaching a course in the history of economic thought and a modern course on the economy where the teacher can still engage with various perspectives in economics or schools of thought. But this is beside the point here. If pluralism within the context of the CORE project has implied the acceptance of a course of history of economic thought on the economics curriculum, professor Carlin’s conception has been replaced by or evolved into a pluralism by integration approach.

 

Professors Samuel Bowles and Wendy Carlin have argued recently (16 January 2018) in FT (https://www.ft.com/content/bfd5ac14-fa11-11e7-9bfc-052cbba03425), probably under the pressure of criticism addressed to CORE’s lack of pluralism (at the level of method, theories, methodologies and engagement with different schools of thought), that a course in introductory economics could be pluralistic in two different ways. One is to acknowledge the existence and variety of different schools of thought “in a kind of paradigmatic tournament” (Bowles and Carlin 2018). The second view proposes the integration of different approaches generated by various schools of thought so as to reflect a “common narrative and related analytical models” (ibid.). There is value in both approaches, authors contend, but they argue, using an example from labour markets, that the second approach- that they call Pluralism by integration– is the approach that characterizes CORE. The authors also point out that the second approach equips students with better analytical and empirical reasoning skills, requiring students to take stances and form their own opinions on various global problems such as inequality, climate change and so on. The authors give the example of the labour market and argue that integrating ideas from Coase, Hayek, Marx and Simon “provides a model that students can then use to analyze the gig economy, the effects of minimum wages or the economic performance of nations with different labour market institutions”.

 

I have advocated pluralism by integration in three recent talks on decolonization of the economics curriculum, including in a session that the Association of Heterodox Economics UK organized at the INET’S Festival of Economic ideas in Edinburgh (2017). The basis of these talks is to be found in a 2008 paper (with Dr. Vinca Bigo) where I specifically discuss the relationship between fragmentation, pluralism and integration. One of the aims of the paper was to consider the extent to which the pursuit of a pluralist approach to the study of a subject might achieve the level and the type of integration that can produce theoretical and methodological advances in scholarship. We define fragmentation of scholarship to be both a process and an outcome and acknowledge that fragmentation can take a number of forms such as fragmentation resulting from multiple specializations; or the fragmentation of scholarship in the form of (and resulting from) divergent, conflicting views, approaches, methods and so on.

 

Why is fragmentation of knowledge important to discuss? The answer is that if fragmentation becomes excessive it can easily be translated into eclecticism and radical relativism.

 

On the other hand, one can distinguish two aspects of integration (process and product).

  1. Integration by assembly: the integrating of insights into the different aspects of the subject/field/realm being studied, so to acquire a bigger n-dimensional puzzle, akin to a jigsaw puzzle;
  2. Integration by resolution: the integrating of divergent/conflicting views through a process of dialectical resolution, or existing divergences, to gain ultimately, in truth and accuracy.

 

We posed the question: how can one expect a healthy state of pluralism that is constructive, progressive and conducive to academic advancement, to appear?

 

The process of integration requires a progressive form of pluralism. Our paper proposes an integrative and reflexive type of pluralism that is critical and rational at the same time. Both of the above types of integration can be achieved through debate, tolerance, plurality and ultimately pluralism. A pluralist approach to integration is beneficial as it seeks to make connections between ideas, is seeking to overcome disagreements and to consolidate partial insights. Overall, there are different degrees of integration (of both types) and this can be easily transformed into absorption/assimilation of ideas, theories and so on. This discussion and distinction seem to be absent from the article of Professor Bowles and Carlin (2018). In a system of thought there is a need for unity and coherence but also for dissension in order to generate communication, tolerance and not ultimately new concepts, ideas, theories and so on. An integration that implies a unitary focus is a utopia and it is against pluralism in any forms. When something is absorbed- a theory, an idea and so on, that something is losing its uniqueness, essence and identity.

 

A fundamental question arises: what is the scientific basis of the ‘process’ of integration proposed by Professors Bowles and Carlin? What are the criteria of selecting ideas in an economic, social and political context that constantly changes? Is this not just a form of eclecticism that is in danger of lacking the so unity and coherence desired in the first place?

 

When we proceed to integrate, we choose epistemological, methodological, ontological elements and decide the integration on a scientific critical basis, guided by criteria selected by the scientist in a rational way. The resulting outcome or system of thought does not have to be necessarily harmonious because from this conflict of ideas are likely to emerge new ideas, concepts and theories. Economics needs to be taught through different approaches that have various policy implications. One has to teach students about the political and normative implications of economics. Furthermore, we need to infuse students with the responsibility of how to choose among perspectives and how to be aware of all these implications. With all the integration, one cannot teach heterodox economics through mainstream economics, not only because it is not pluralism per se but it is also unethical: the heterodox perspective is reduced and translated from the mainstream perspective point of view. It is reductionist and discriminative. It is economic imperialism in its very essence.

 

References:

 

  1. Bigo, V. and Negru, I (2008), From Fragmentation to Ontologically Reflexive Pluralism”, Journal of Philosophical Economics,1 (2): 127-150 Special issue;
  2. Birdi, A. (2014). “Changing the Subject”, Royal Economics Society Newsletter, n. 166, July 2014, pp. 10-11;
  3. Bowles, S. (2018), “How to Fix University Economics Courses. A Syllabus that does not Integrate the Insights of other Disciplines Fails Students”, Financial Times, 16th January; available on-line at: https://www.ft.com/content/bfd5ac14-fa11-11e7-9bfc-052cbba03425 and accessed 5th May 2018;
  4. Cassidy, J. (2017), “A New Way to Learn Economics”, The New Yorker, 11th of September, available on-line at: https://www.newyorker.com/news/john-cassidy/a-new-way-to-learn-economics and accessed 5th of May 2018;
  5. Giugliano, F. (2015), “Students Weigh the Value of new Economics Course”, Financial Times, 10th of April, available on-line at: https://www.ft.com/content/fc2eb464-d93d-11e4-b907-00144feab7de and accessed 5th of May 2018;
  6. Mearman A., Berger, S. and D. Guizzo (2016), “Curriculum Reform in UK Economics: a Critique”, Economics Working Paper Series, Faculty of Business and Law, University of the West of England, nr. 1611;
  7. Morgan, J. (2014), “Necessary Pluralism in the Economics Curriculum: the Case for Heterodoxy”, Royal Economics Society Newsletter, n. 167, October, pp. 16-19;
  8. Negru, I. (2007), “Institutions, Markets and Gift: Neoclassical, Institutional and Austrian Perspectives”, Doctoral Thesis, Nottingham Trent University, UK, July;
  9. Negru, I. (2009), Reflections on Pluralism in Economics”, International Journal for Pluralism in Economics Education, vol.1 (1): 1-17 (Inaugural issue);
  10. Negru, I. (2010), “Plurality to Pluralism in Economics Pedagogy: the Role of Critical Thinking”, International Journal for Pluralism in Economics Education, vol. 1(3), pp.185-193;
  11. Negru, I and A. Negru (2017), “Modes of Pluralism: Critical Commentary on The Roundtable Dialogue on Pluralism”, International Journal of Pluralism in Economics Education, vol. 8 (2,) pp. 193-209;
  12. Post-Crash Economics Society- PCES (2014), “Economics, Education and Unlearning”, Manchester PCES.

 

Ioana Negru

School of Oriental and African Studies, London

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1 comment
  1. David Harold Chester said:

    How shall we explain economics? It is a mixture of many things but they do fall into a number of fixed categories. In the case of macroeconomics the situation has recently become much easier to follow and to understand the way it works. This is due to my research and new book about making it an exact science “Consequential Macroeconomics” .

    Making Macroeconomics an Exact Science

    Today macroeconomics is treated as an inexact topic within the humanities, because at a first look it appears to be a very complex and easily confused matter. But this attitude does not give it fair justice–we should be trying to find a good way to approach and examine the subject that avoids these problems of complexity and confusion. Suppose we ask ourselves the question: “how many different KINDS of financial transactions happen within our society?”, then the answer is that only a limited number of them is possible.

    Although our society comprises of many millions of participants, to answer this question properly we should be ready to take aggregates of all the various kinds of activities (no matter who performs them) and then idealize them so that they fall into more general terms for the expression of the different specific social functions. Here, each activity is found to apply between its particular pair of entities—with the expression of its individual properties. Then the author finds that to cover the whole social system of a country (excluding foreign trade), it takes only 19 mutual flows of money for the purchase and payment of/for goods, services, access rights, taxes, credit, investments, valuable legal documents, etc .
    The analysis that led to this unexpected result was performed by the author and it may be found in his working paper (on the internet) as SSRN 2865571 “Einstein’s Criterion Applied to Logical Macroeconomics Modeling”. In this model there are these 19 double flows of money verses goods etc. They are found to pass between only 6 kinds of role-playing entities. (There are of course a number of configurations that are possible for this type of simplification, but if one tries to eliminate all the unnecessary complications and sticks to the basic activities, these particular quantities are the most concise result of this simple yet satisfactory and comprehensive analysis.)

    Surprisingly, past representation of our social system by this kind of an interpretations model has not been properly examined nor presented before. Other partial versions have been previously modeled, but they are inexact due to their being over-simplified, (or in the case of econometrics, too complicated) and this is one reason for their earlier non-scientific confusion and failure for obtaining a good understanding about the way the whole system works. The model being described here is unique in being the first to include, along with some additional aspects, all the 3 factors of production of Adam Smith’s “Wealth of Nations” book of 1776. The three factors of production are Land, Labor and Capital and along with their returns of Ground-Rent, Wages and Interest/Dividends respectively, which are all parts included in this presentation.

    A diagram of this model is in my paper and also may be viewed in Wikipedia, Commons, Macroeconomics as: DiagFuncMacroSyst.pdf , which needs enlargement to get all of the aspects included in one view–for a mention of the related teaching process (see my short working SSRN 2600103 “A Mechanical Model for Teaching Macroeconomics”). With this model the various parts and activities of the Big Picture of our social system can be properly identified and defined. Subsequently by analysis, the way the system works can then be properly calculated and illustrated.
    It is done by the mathematics and logic that was devised by Nobel Laureate Wassiley W. Leontief, when he invented and introduced the important “Input-Output” matrix methodology (but he applied it to the production sector only). This short-hand method of modeling the whole system replaces the above-mentioned block-and-flow diagram. It enables one to really get to grips with what is going-on in our social system. It is found that it is the topology of the matrix which actually provides the key to this. The math is not hard and is suitable for high school students who have been shown the basic properties of square matrices.

    Developments of these ideas about making our subject more truly scientific (thereby avoiding the past pseudo-science being taught at universities), may be found in my recent book: “Consequential Macroeconomics—Rationalizing About How Our Social System Works”. Please write to me at chesterdh@hotmail.com for a free e-copy of this 310 page book and for additional information.

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