This is an edited version of moderator Neva Goodwin’s report on a panel organized by the New Economy Coalition and presented at Tufts University under the title “How to Change the Teaching of Economics.” Panelists included Helen Scharber, Jigar Bhatt and Keith Harrington. Summary bios appear at the end. The complete and unedited report is available here in PDF.]
This panel did not directly address the issue of what’s wrong with what is now taught in economics courses; it started from the assumption that quite a lot is wrong. Nor did it prescribe exactly what should be done to improve the curriculum. Instead it asked: “Suppose we agree on what should be taught in economics curricula, how can such change be brought about?” The session addressed this question, focusing on the forces that now act as barriers against incorporating different content in economics courses, as well as strategic approaches for overcoming these barriers.
What are the barriers to creating alternatives to the straight neoclassical curriculum?
(… even in liberal-minded economics department such as UMass Amherst, the New School, and Hampshire College. Elsewhere it is even harder for a willing instructor to move an undergraduate Introduction to Economics course far from the standard fare.)
- Existing theories are elegant, tell uncomplicated stories, appear internally consistent, are comforting in their appearance of certainty, and are abstract enough to go unquestioned.
- Young teachers are warned not to teach anything too ‘radical’ for fear of getting bad evaluations, and with an eye to the broader job market for economic teachers.
- Efforts to bring in a broader perspective while using standard materials requires the teacher to “fight the text,” confusing students who don’t yet know what it is that is being criticized.
- It takes so long to teach the internal logic and graphical representation of the standard concepts that there is little time for more substantial discussion of them or of other concepts.
- Departments that are strongly identified as “alternative” may be committed to one or another traditional (e.g., Marxian, Keynesian, Post-Keynesian) leftist course framework, not necessarily open to “newer” schools such as ecological economics, feminist economics etc.
- Such departments also tend to be severely underfunded, and face the retirement of older, more progressive or radical professors, without clearly strong replacements in the wings.
- Economics departments are generally oriented to preparing students for upper level courses.
- There is insufficient awareness of the variety of options in textbooks and other available teaching materials.
- Time and imagination are great constraints – it is hard to do something new and different, and relatively easy to go along with what everyone else is doing.
- Students are generally taught that economics is about mathematical modeling; thus, in classes offering more qualitative approaches students say, “Okay, but where is the economics (math)?” They find other theories not serious or comprehensive enough. Economics is considered useful for future job prospects, raising the question: How can the discipline change as needed while retaining at least some of this cachet? A key issue (one of discourse and power) is the need to reframe and redefine what it means to be ‘rigorous’. For instance such reframing might emphasize that without ‘rigorous’ training on qualitative questions, such as how to conduct surveys and gather data, mathematical analysis can’t be truly rigorous.
- There is a long history of neoclassical economists “accepting” a new theory or approach, only to marginalize it or change it so that it does not obviously conflict with the mainstream core. The outstanding example is the Samuelson’s “neoclassical synthesis” in which Keynes’ message was drastically altered, but there have been many others, such as what was done with Leibenstein’s X-efficiency, and many, many others. (It will be interesting to see whether it is possible to do this with the challenges from behavioral economics.)
Addressing issues of content and methods
A deeper analysis of content and methods has been done for a single school, Willamette University. [To be covered in a forthcoming INSIDE - ed] It could also be undertaken for the profession as a whole. The basic question is: What elements of the standard content and methods are actually useful – and to which students? That is, What should be taught to students who are majoring in economics? What is the most useful set of ideas and methods for the much larger group of students who just take one or a few econ courses? What is especially needed for students who will go on to other majors? (For many other majors, such as Planning and Business, specially tailored introductions to economics are already widely available.)
A deeper analysis of content and method can address how to add new elements into a curriculum, such as an understanding of economic history or the interactions between economic activity and the natural world. It would likely lead to pruning out elements that will not be useful or relevant to students, as well as elements that are exposed as contrary to fact (such as some of the standard assumptions about human nature). Absent such legitimization from a deeper, comprehensive analysis, faculty tend to feel insecure about removing any of the expected, standard elements.
Such a project could also seek good data on the percentage of students taking the introductory “principles” courses who will become economics majors. This could be followed with a targeted analysis of what econ major and non-major students need in the way of mathematical preparation, including suggestions on how that could be provided without weighing down the intro courses. More generally, it would be useful to review the mathematical and statistical techniques now being taught and produce recommendations on which methods are most valuable for students at different levels, and in different areas of economics.
[Editor’s note: We would suggest a review of the maths used in economics would reveal that these, too, although widely taken to be relevant and to be sturdy support for the application of economics in later endeavors, are in fact clumsy and often inappropriate tools. See the recent pieces in INSIDE on dynamical analysis.]
A deeper analysis should be informed by other disciplines. Economics education would benefit greatly from widening its view, and there are lessons to be learned from other departments as to what economics content those faculty find relevant and useful for their students. Pruning of standard content might be paired with inclusion of courses from other disciplines and allow students to pursue different curricular tracks (e.g., Political Economy, Financial Economics, etc.).
Addressing problems of information, time and capacity
Faculty who would like to introduce new concepts may simply not know about how to go about it. Much resistance to change comes from simply not having the time to research alternatives, or the fear that change will require a time commitment that will overwhelm an already heavy teaching burden.
Solutions could include online resources to aid teachers who may want to introduce new economic thinking into existing mainstream courses or teach an entire course on a particular school of thought. Existing examples include the following:
- The Union for Radical Political Economics (URPE) has a repository of syllabi with on the order of 150 submissions across micro, macro, political economy, labor, int’l econ, econ history, history of thought, health, development, etc.
- The Institute for New Economic Thinking offers a number of on-line courses and other materials (finding them on the website requires a patient search of http://ineteconomics.org/).
- The Global Development And Environment Institute offers 16 free teaching modules on economic theory in social and environmental context.
- [Editor’s note: Some of Steve Keen’s lectures are available here. More soon.]
It is important to let faculty know what resources are available, not only online, but in terms of alternative texts. There have been several surveys by list-serves, such as FemEcon and URPE, as well as studies such as that by Tom Webb, and “Appropriate Economics for the 21st Century A 2010-1957 Guide to Relevant Books, Reports, and Articles,” compiled by Michael Marien. The “Economics in Context” texts, by Goodwin et al, tend to come to the top of the lists, even where the survey has a focus on one particular alternative.
Faculty also need information on the probability that students in intro courses will go on to become econ majors. And there should be efforts to understand how students feel about their education, using various quantitative and qualitative research techniques such as surveys (as has been done successfully in France) and focus groups.
Grad students interested in new ideas about content and pedagogy need support, too. interdisciplinary lunchtime talks or informal conversations – at individual universities or city-wide – could introduce other teaching content and culture, and to how economic questions are being asked and answered in other disciplines or courses. Or network hubs in cities could facilitate mentors from progressive/heterodox departments in supporting like-minded students and faculty in more orthodox departments or institutions. (Most cities have a department that leans away from the status quo. Boston has several, New York has New School, DC has American University, etc.)
Also important for grad students who will go on to be teachers is training in pedagogical methods. For the last two years Geoff Schneider has run an excellent ‘Workshop on Advanced Pedagogy and Course Design’ for heterodox economists at the ASSA meetings. On the model of what has been achieved by the Public Administration Theory Network, teaching seminars at heterodox grad schools would both look good to prospective employers and strengthen the ability of new economic thinkers to change the shape of the discipline. Videos and documents could be shared online.
Engaging activists, especially students
Consider a traditional campus organizing model to mobilize student groups on individual campuses, and connect them with others across the country (e.g., along the lines of Energy Action Coalition, or Sierra Student Coalition’s organizing models). As opposed to a theory of change that assumes that better ideas will automatically edge out worse ones, activism needs to be brought in to the battle of ideas. This model is campaign oriented, organizing students to achieve discrete goals. An activist approach would prioritize schools based on power-mapping of the departments and broader university community, and identify where initial victories are achievable and will resonate. It would build a national network of allies, including sympathetic professors and economists who will serve in an advisory capacity to the students and lend professional credibility to their demands. This could be supported by surveys of what students are learning, and how satisfied they are with existing and “new economics” courses.
Given the evanescence of student groups, it would be important to develop a leadership structure that can last beyond the initial cohort. It would likely be necessary to hire paid national organizers to support the student network and to produce resources for individual student groups, such as reading lists, meeting and event guides, and talking points. Students should be made aware that sympathetic faculty will usually respond positively to a student group’s invitation to come and speak. Communications support for campaigns would include press release templates and media advice as well as posters, brochures, and event flyer templates. National actions should be organized to get national media attention.
New Economy Coalition’s “New Economy Week” could be used for movement-building on campuses, perhaps accompanied by a “national walk-out day.” Such events might include some sort of teach-in so that students are not penalized for missing a class. For example, students could collect in groups to discuss the material in the syllabus and help each other become proficient in it (providing a model of collaborative vs. competitive learning), and then add another topic for discussion that is not on the syllabus. (They could invite their teacher to sit in.) Alternatively the walk-out could be saved as a tactic that students on certain campuses use to escalate their campaign if their calls for change go unheeded. “New Economy Week” might simply involve a national “new economy teach-in” where heterodox professors are invited to give guest lectures by students in mainstream departments.
Activism would also encourage a broader national awareness of the ways that economic theory relates to and even causes economic problems. Students and faculty who are dedicated to economics curricular change can join forces with activists concerned with local economic conditions, and reach out to marginalized communities. Internship programs might be developed to encourage students to go out and do research or provide economic literacy courses for activist groups and communities. Coinciding with major elections, activists could sponsor town halls where economic issues important to the public are openly debated from both orthodox and non-orthodox perspectives. Politicians’ and policy positions can become starting points. Major schools of economic thought could be connected with current economic conditions, indicating how alternative economic theories can provide alternative principles for organizing the economy.
Global Development and Environment Institute at Tufts University
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Report on the Panel
“How to Change the Teaching of Economics”
Presented at the CommonBound conference Organized by the New Economy Coalition June 8, 2014
Dr. Helen Scharber is an Assistant Professor of Economics at Hampshire College, and holds a B.A. in economics from Knox College, an M.A. in environmental politics from Keele University, and an M.A. and Ph.D. in economics from the University of Massachusetts. Her research and teaching interests lie at the intersection of political economy, environmental justice and health. She is also a staff economist for the Center for Popular Economics, where she teaches workshops designed to demystify the economy for activists.
Mr. Jigar Bhatt started out studying economics, earning a Bachelor in economics from Northeastern University over a decade ago. While never a fully practicing economist, he has worked alongside economists for nearly a decade, first on US social welfare policy and then on infrastructure development in Sub-Saharan Africa. He now studies economists – their ideas and methods – and how they influence our social and built environment as a PhD student at Columbia University’s Program in Urban Planning.
Mr. Keith Harrington is a recent graduate of the economics masters degree program at the New School for Social Research. He is a co-founder of the International Student Initiative for Pluralist Economics, and a former grassroots-organizing director for the Chesapeake Climate Action Network. He is also the founder of the social business Shoestring Videos for Nonprofits and a contributing writer on sustainability, democracy and economics at Grist, Truthout, Alternet and the Huffington Post.
Dr. Neva Goodwin earned a PhD in Economics from Boston University, and is co-director of the Global Development And Environment Institute at Tufts University. She is the author of editor of numerous books, including three introductory level economics textbooks.