The Problem With the Way Economists Are Educated

By Dr. Tim Thornton

Economics is unique, for in no other discipline do students so regularly rebel against the content of their instruction.

For example, the International Student Initiative for Pluralism in Economics (a consortium of 65 student associations from 31 countries) laments the dramatic narrowing of the economics curriculum that has taken place in recent decades. Rethinking Economics, another international network of student, academics, and professionals advocating to build better economics, argues that “economics in universities is narrow, uncritical and detached from the real world. It is dogmatically taught from one perspective as if it is the only legitimate way to study the economy. There is no room for the critical discussion and debate that is essential for any student to engage with real world economic problems.”

Academics, industry economists, and world leaders have also called for reform in the way that economics is taught. For example, the International Confederation of Associations for Pluralism in Economics, which numbers over 30 groups within its ranks, has asked not only for curriculum reform, but for greater pluralism across research and applied work. Even Pope Francis has called for a new economic model that focuses on social purpose and common good, arguing that the current model of self-interest and market freedom to resolve societal problems is unreliable.

This notable situation begs three obvious question: Why the continuing conflict? Why does it matter? And what, if anything, should be done in response?  

assorted books on wooden table

What is the conflict?

The mainstream curriculum in economics, based on the neoclassical theory, is severely limited in its ability to address some of the key issues of the current century, including climate change, social and economic inequality, financial instability, unpaid work, gender, and ethics. This is partly because the theory is based on unrealistic assumptions of rationality, perfect competition, and perfect information  – all of which are jarring oversimplifications of the real world. The model also only focuses on market interactions and neglects issues of social and environmental sustainability, resulting in a very narrow, simplistic, and inadequate paradigm. There is, therefore, immense demand to reform the curriculum to make it more relevant for understanding the real-world. 

Why does it matter?

It matters because the way economics is taught has consequences far beyond university walls: it shapes the minds of the next generation of policymakers, voters, and citizens. Because the big choices that face society often have a strong economic dimension, how students are taught to analyze those choices has obvious implications for what directions societies decide to pursue. Furthermore, a broader economics curriculum is necessary to more effectively develop generic graduate attributes such as critical thinking, creativity, and problem solving that many employers require. There is also good evidence that suggests that a curriculum that over emphasizes the social benefits of self-interest and competition is damaging the moral development of students and inhibiting their capacity to cooperate.

What needs be done? 

The economics curriculum needs to be reformed to include perspectives from other schools of economics. For example, the institutional, post-Keynesian, behavioral, Marxian, Austrian, feminist, and ecological economics schools all make crucial contributions to understanding of a complex and ever-changing world. Our understanding of the economy must also be rooted in the social, political, institutional, historical, and environmental contexts in which it operates. Taking an interdisciplinary and inclusive approach to economics provides a much richer understanding of the key economic challenges and promotes solutions that are just, equitable, and sustainable. 

This is the approach taken by the Economics in Context Initiative (ECI) at Boston University’s Global Development Policy Center, in developing a suite of introductory textbooks, teaching modules, and publications (books, articles, and working papers) on various social and environmental issues in economics. 

ECI’s textbooks are deftly constructed in that they include the standard textbook content, but provide a much broader and richer introduction to economics taking the ‘contextual approach,’ where human well-being is promoted as the key goal of economics and economic activity is analyzed within its social and environmental contexts. Issues of economic stability, unemployment, inequality, ecological sustainability, non-market work, and social and cultural norms are central to the analysis. This makes the material much more engaging and relevant to students to understand the challenges of the current century.  

ECI also produces teaching modules (available as free PDFs), which allow instructors to experiment with a more contextual and pluralist approach. For example, instructors might substitute one or two of the chapters from their traditional textbook with a contextual module. Alternatively, a number of modules can be used together to effectively create a bespoke course suited to particular interests and purposes.  

The ECI series of resources has met with reasonable success and has been warmly welcomed by many instructors and students across the United States and around the world. While these results are encouraging, much effort still needs to be undertaken at economics departments across the world, where a complex range of factors continues to produce a striking amount of inertia and resistance to curricular change. ECI contributes to this struggle by developing materials that provide viable alternatives to the mainstream curriculum and raising awareness about the need to reform the curriculum. 

One option, when reform within economics departments proves impossible, may be to teach a more pluralistic economics under the title of ‘political economy’ in a politics or management department. Success might also be achieved via the establishment of a separate department of political economy. Furthermore, one might teach outside the university system (see for example, the author’s own School of Political Economy). 

Given the continuing persistence of the mainstream curriculum, the push for reform will need to be well organized, persuasive, persistent, and creative if it is to have any success. As the world grapples with the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, the time is ripe for creating a new economy based on values of human well-being, social equity, and ecological sustainability. Accordingly, we need to be able to adequately train the next generation of economists so that they can play their part in bringing this new economy into being.   


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