In this concluding chapter, we briefly review what this book has offered and then look forward, offering practical suggestions and ideas for economics teachers and professors, programme directors and students.
1. A New Vision for Economics Education
Our rapidly changing world is faced with many economic challenges, such as increasing debt levels, staggering inequalities and serious forms of ecological breakdown. These challenges are complex and cross multiple dimensions of our social and natural systems. To face them, it is not nearly enough for economists to hold knowledge in formal, theoretical abstractions. Whilst these may be sophisticated, they only reflect a fraction of what is actually going on in the real world. We need broadly trained economists with an understanding of the real-world economy. We need economists who know for example how the main industries work, who can grasp the interfaces between state and corporate systems and who can see how economies are embedded in society and nature at large.
This requires open minds that can examine issues from a variety of perspectives. Given the multifaceted nature of economic systems, no single theoretical framework or methodology can answer all questions, or capture all of its dimensions and mechanisms. Instead, economists need the ability to think critically and evaluate the appropriateness of a range of fundamentally different approaches. In doing so, they also need to be able to clearly distinguish and explicitly discuss the moral dilemmas and normative trade-offs involved in economic decisions.
This book sets out a concrete path towards building such a pluralist and real-world based economics curriculum. While we envision a large diversity of possible economics programmes, we suggest that all programmes would be improved by following these three principles: a pluralist toolkit of theories and methods, sufficient real-world economic knowledge and practical skills, and active training in the consideration of values and moral and social questions. To flesh out these principles, we propose ten concrete building blocks: practical material for the creation of courses. These building blocks include introductory material, history of economic thought and reality, forms of economic organisation, research methods, theoretical approaches, normative ideas, practical skills and knowledge of the real economy.
The entire book carries a CC-BY Creative Commons licence, meaning that any part can be freely used, redistributed, or built upon without restrictions. We encourage people to make use of this and apply, edit and adapt the material for their own purposes.
What kind of graduates would a programme based on these ideas and materials produce? It is important to acknowledge that they would not have all the skills that current-day graduates have. They would have less mathematical sophistication, less expertise in econometric analysis, and less knowledge of neoclassical theory. Instead, students would gain a deeper understanding and more concrete knowledge of the economy they live and will work in. This includes:
- An understanding of the linkages between the economy, the environment and society.
- The ability to analyse different types of economic topics and problems, by using a variety of theoretical and methodological approaches.
- An integral understanding of how various smaller mechanisms make up larger economic systems.
- Practical skills for investigating and resolving questions of economic policy: both understanding the context and choosing the right tool.
- The ability to argue morally as well as analytically, and to clearly distinguish the two.
In short, such programmes would produce academically trained professional economists: broad thinkers and practical scholars, rather than students who are trained to write academic research papers.
2. Change Is Necessary and Possible
It will not be easy to build such programmes. We fully realise that these changes cannot be introduced overnight. Surprisingly rare is the academic economist who can teach even a basic introductory course on their national economic sectors and institutions. The structure of the discipline – highly internationalised, methods-centred and organised around a single pyramid structure of journals – does not facilitate the creation of such knowledge. The same applies to pluralism in economic theory: the decades-long marginalisation of valuable schools of thought has left us with a dearth of suitably trained academics.
In addition, academic programmes tend to have a strong path-dependency. Most are only updated infrequently and changed piecemeal. Long-running courses have to be adjusted, the order in which courses build upon each other has to be reconsidered, new courses have to be developed and new expertise has to develop in the economics departments. In many countries, national or international frameworks regulate academic programme content. In short, this is a long road, but one that we believe is both necessary and possible.
The changes we propose are necessary. The devastating impact of our economy on the life-sustaining ecological systems of this planet is increasingly visible, making the realistic study of that economy all the more urgent. The unprecedented centrality of the economy in our society and the big role of economic ideas in political decision-making make it all the more vital for economists to be firmly rooted in the real world, to have a pluralist perspective and to be trained in distinguishing the moral tangles inherent to economic questions. We need to prepare a new generation of economists, and we should start this work now.
The changes we propose are possible. Indeed, they are happening, thanks to the energy of a growing worldwide network of students and academics. More and more pluralist and real-world textbooks, course formats, readers, best practices and other materials are becoming available (see the online Teaching Materials resource chapter at economy.st/materials for many examples). Increasingly, faculties are teaching economics primarily as a subject-based pluralist discipline, rather than a method-centred monist approach. Economic faculties are hiring academics from other theoretical schools and other disciplines, thus reversing the narrowing of the past decades and enriching both students and colleagues with fresh insights. Various universities are starting to experiment with teaching-based career tracks, enabling staff to focus on developing better teaching materials rather than focusing almost exclusively on publishing in mainstream academic journals. Pluralist programmes are springing up inside and outside of traditional economics departments, throughout the academic world. Perhaps most importantly, more and more faculties are opening up to the idea of widening their student’s view beyond the traditional theories and methods.
3. Calls to Action
While there are hopeful signs of change, this is only the start. We need more students, teachers, programme directors and deans to make a difference and help ensure that the economists of the future are prepared for their roles in society. So what can each of us do to bring economics education to a higher plane?
Students, be critical of what you are learning. Do not just ask: “Is this part of the exam?”. Instead, ask: “Does this reflect the real world?”, “In what other way could one also look at this issue?”, and “What are the moral dilemmas surrounding this case?”. Look up the course you are following in chapter Tool 2: Adapting Existing Courses and discuss the suggested additions and changes with your teacher. Design your own ideal course with the tool of chapter Tool 4: Example Courses and campaign to make your dream into a reality. Talk to your lecturers and find out who is interested in your ideas. Build public support by publishing an open letter or petition that advocates for the creation of this new course.
Get in touch with the programme committee and apply Tool 3: Curriculum Review to your programme to see what could be improved. Build, or join, a local team of critical students. Organise a reading group or an event. If you want, you can become affiliated with the international Rethinking Economics network and benefit from the experience, contacts and resources of a large worldwide network of student groups. Doing it together will not only help you last longer and achieve more impact, it will also be more fun.
Teachers, think about what you are preparing your students for. Less than 3% of them will become academic economists, the rest will work inside government agencies, policy institutes and think-tanks, (central) banks and other financial corporations, private sector and not-for-profit companies, NGOs and campaign groups, and journalistic entities. As such, they will work on tackling practical and real-world problems, rather than publishing academic articles. So, confront your students with the messy and complex real world, let them practise tackling actual cases, start lectures with today’s newspaper, ask guest speakers from the relevant field, and let students go out of the classroom and experience the economy with their own eyes.
Stimulate open discussions and active participation from students, bring in literature from other disciplines, actively expose the weaknesses of the theories you are teaching. Make normative assumptions explicit and let students struggle with the resulting moral dilemmas. Make sure that you are not just pushing through a textbook; be proud of your role as a teacher and use it. Make use of the suggestions provided throughout this book, and in particular in Tool 2: Adapting Existing Courses. Kick-start discussions, and play the devil’s advocate. Trigger students to start thinking, critically and independently.
Most academics reach many more people through their teaching than through their academic papers. Yet today, teaching is underappreciated and under-rewarded. Often, the time allocated for teaching is not nearly enough. Please speak out about this. Challenge that status quo, with the students as your allies.
Deans and programme directors, support and facilitate good teaching. Make sure that your faculty have enough resources and time available for teaching. Enable them to constantly improve their teaching and update the taught material. Give students a voice and role in designing and adapting the courses. Ask yourself: how is our programme built? Was it created through a departmental power struggle about which professors’ specialisation is more important and deserves most space in the programme? Or is it carefully designed based on a clear idea of the societal roles students are being prepared for? How is it updated based on changes in society and academic thinking?
Do not be afraid to deviate from the standard programme at other universities. Variety in programmes makes economics education stronger, not weaker. It also makes your university stand out. Take a look at
the chapter Tool 5: Example Curricula and draw inspiration from other innovative programmes. Try your hand at Tool 3: Curriculum Review, to see where in your programme there might be gaps in terms of relevant knowledge or skills. You could also ask teachers or students to run this analysis, and set up a series of meetings to discuss the outcomes. Or you could ask members of the international Rethinking Economics movement to organise a workshop or conference to further explore how the programme could be improved. Attention and open discussion about how to better economics education can only be positive, contributing to better prepared future economists.
Governments, create the right conditions for good economics education. Look at how resources for teaching and research are distributed. Does this encourage relevant, open-minded and interdisciplinary research and teaching, or does it encourage scoring on the intellectual square millimetre through a competitive ‘publish or perish’ system? Are universities stimulated to offer their faculty career options focused on education and reward good teaching? Governments could also follow the French example (French Government, 2014) and initiate an independent and in-depth investigation of the state of the economics education in the country.
Climate change, inequality, economic instability, ageing, power concentration, pandemics, biodiversity loss, social polarisation, resource depletion, migration, poverty; these are core challenges for the world of today and tomorrow. Economists have a central role in society and need to tackle these challenges head-on. Reforming and modernising economics education is therefore of great importance not only to the students and teachers directly involved in it, but also to society as a whole. Let’s build better courses and programmes, together.