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Pluralism in the economics curriculum: why it is needed and how you can obtain it


Sam O'Connor

By

July 10th, 2017


A common criticism levelled at economics departments is that their teaching focuses too narrowly on neoclassical ideas and does not properly explore other schools of thought within the discipline. Tim Thornton argues for a change of approach, and demonstrates one way you can explore economic pluralism if you so desire.


In the past few years, economics students from across the world have called for greater plurality in the economics curriculum. For example, in 2014 the International Student Initiative for Pluralism in Economics (which is a federation of 82 student groups from across 31 countries) released an open letter calling for greater pluralism and interdisciplinarity in their economics education.

Some of the students’ lecturers have also been calling for changes. For example, the International Confederation for the Advancement of Pluralism in Economics (a federation of 30 groups working to maintain diversity and innovation in methods, approaches and analysis of policy) is also seeking curricular reform.

The nub of everybody’s criticism is that contemporary economics instruction has become too narrow and uncritical. Students are only introduced to one school of economics (the neoclassical school) yet there are multiple competing schools, each of which makes a unique contribution to the difficult task of building up our knowledge of economic and social reality. It is not that anybody is against students learning the neoclassical approach, rather the problem is that the neoclassical approach is all they are learning. As Ha-Joon Chang, Institutionalist Economist at the University of Cambridge points out:

“It is terrible that students these days are taught there is only one flavour of ice cream, when there are 9 or 10 different ones. At least, let them taste them all, and if they conclude that neoclassical is the best, then so be it. But you have to at least tell them that there are all other kinds of theories. Otherwise, it’s like North Korea”.  

So, the concern is ultimately about intellectual honesty and adequacy; don’t just introduce students to one strand of thought and conceal from them the existence of other strands. Furthermore, in teaching each school there is a need to be candid about each school’s weaknesses, strengths and appropriate domain of applicability.

Some economists try to justify the status quo by arguing that there is not enough space in the curriculum to teach anything except the neoclassical school. This is a very dubious rationale, particularly when it is considered that learning about schools that compete with the neoclassical approach greatly increases one’s understanding of the neoclassical approach.

That students are not taught their own discipline, and are instead taught just one strand of it, is remarkable; indeed, I have just published a book about the problem and what can be done to rectify it. The book is an extension of my PhD thesis which was focused on the same issue.

One of the key strategies I examine in the book is that of teaching a pluralist economics under the label of ‘political economy’ in departments of political science. It was found this can work well because once you are outside economics departments you tend not to encounter the same level of intellectual narrowness, intolerance and incomprehension. Furthermore, because many of the non-neoclassical schools of economics have strong inter connections to politics and the other social sciences it is a natural fit intellectually. It is relevant to note that classical economists such as Adam Smith referred to themselves as ‘political economists’, and also saw themselves as practising a unified social science.

I spent a decade lecturing in economics departments inside and outside the Group of Eight, but like others found that it was difficult to achieve ‘reform from within’. As a consequence of this, and as a consequence of my own research, I recently moved to the Department of Politics and Philosophy at La Trobe University. I have now established an undergraduate subject in political economy (POL2PPE Contemporary Political Economy). The subject is set up in online mode so that students from across Australia and across the world can enrol in these subjects ‘cross-institutionally’ – nearly all universities allow you to study a few subjects at another university and for that study to be credited to your degree with your home university. Online mode means that the lecture is presented as a video recording and there is a weekly tutorial via your webcam on Zoom (though students also have the option of attending a face to face tutorial if they wish to). This format works very well because there is still a lot of direct lecturer-student contact and because the content itself is so interesting and illuminating.

So, that’s the story with economic pluralism. If I have piqued your interest I would encourage you to read my thesis or my book. Furthermore, if you want to do some pluralist economics/political economy this coming semester then get in touch with me at t.thornton@latrobe.edu.au. I am happy to give you further information, including a complete set of (super positive) student feedback from last time I ran this subject.

Dr Tim Thornton lectures in political economy at La Trobe University.

The views expressed within this article are those of the author and do not represent the views of the ESSA Committee or the Society's sponsors. Use of any content from this article should clearly attribute the work to the author and not to ESSA or its sponsors.

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