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from  post-autistic economics newsletter : issue no. 12, March 15, 2002



Toward a Post-Autistic Economics Education

Susan Feiner   (Uni. of Southern Maine, USA and The Hawke Institute, Uni. of South Australia)


Taken together, the articles by Marc Lavoie and Peter Earl (PAE Review, no. 1; 30 January 2002) can be seen as posing a set of interesting, important, and inter-related questions.  Lavoie asks, “what are the connections between Post-Keynesian and feminist economics?” While Earl asks, “how can we understand, and so transcend, the resistance on the part of students to a more “pluralistic” approach to economics education?”


Lavoie’s investigation of the connections between Post-Keynesian and feminist economics notes the importance of pedagogy, but his essay does not discuss teaching.  Earl’s discussion of pedagogy refers to critical thinking, and the development of student’s capacity to handle intellectual ambiguity, but his discussion does not mention feminist pedagogy.  But pedagogy reform in economics, at least in the United States, emerged as an organic concern of feminists seeking to develop a new approach to the discipline.


Beginning in 1985 and running through at least 1997, there were panels at various economics meetings (including the ASSA), conferences, faculty development programs, workshops, seminars, peer reviewed published papers, as well as a number of edited volumes produced by feminist economists and aimed at deep transformation of the teaching of economics.  In the early years, feminist interest in pedagogy was manifest in the papers researching the presentation of topics relating to gender and race in economics textbooks.  This work demonstrated the extent to which introductory economics textbooks perpetuated sexist and racist assumptions, reinforced existing biases regarding the perversity of policy aimed at redressing sexual and racial inequality, and basically ridiculed any but the “approved” points of view on these controversial topics.


Quite a number of highly esteemed, mainstream economists were appalled by these findings.  With the help of Barbara Bergmann, I recruited such luminaries as Robert Solow, William Baumol, Lester Thurow, Alice Rivlin, and Kenneth Arrow to work with me on The Committee for Race and Gender Balance in the Economics Curriculum.  My point here is that “autism” and bigotry need not go hand in hand.  With a lot of hard work, a great deal of encouragement and helpful support from many quarters, Robin Bartlett (Denison University) and I secured a series of grants from The National Science Foundation to host faculty development programs to help economics professors integrate the new scholarship on women and people of color into the introductory economics curriculum.


Economics Pedagogy and the Feminist Classroom 

From the outset, Bartlett and I knew that the standard “sage on the stage” model of college teaching was not appropriate for bringing these controversial topics into introductory economics classrooms.  How did we know this?  We were both conversant with what was then the cutting edge “active learning,” “student centered” approach to teaching which has its roots in the feminist revisioning of education.


As Peter Earl quite rightly points out, students come to college knowing all sorts of things, and one of the things they “know” is that the way to demonstrate “learning” is to parrot back what the teacher said.  But when students are likely to disagree with the teacher (as many of them often do on the topics related to sex, race and the economy as seen from the eyes of a feminist) they are going to feel manipulated, brainwashed, and angry.  When this is coupled with their almost total ignorance, if not complete misunderstanding, of the struggles for women’s liberation and racial justice, what was intended as a class discussion can turn into an awful round of name calling, intolerance, and all around bad feelings.  (This is why economics professors often choose to avoid these topics).


In Feminism and Methodology philosopher Sandra Harding argues that one of the key distinctive features of feminist research is that the researcher places her/himself and the subject of research “on the same plane.”  This epistemological position has direct application in pedagogy. 


As we were trying to get economics faculty to rethink the teacher role, we organized the faculty development conferences1 so that faculty could re-experience the uncertainty, risk-taking, and mutual support that characterizes classes which are open, non or minimally hierarchical, and which actually welcome free discussion.  We knew that faculty needed to reacquaint themselves with what were hopefully their own best experiences as students.  We hoped that the insights gained from this would lead faculty to realize the need for deep change in the structure of classroom dynamics.


The programs of these conferences2 had faculty engage in competitive timed exercises, and then in cooperative, collaborative exercises.  We asked participants to reflect on the different feelings these exercises provoked.  Here too the recognition that feelings and not just “right answers” are important in learning reflects feminist epistemological commitments.  The gulf between this position and the view of personhood (if you can call it that) embodied in Rational Economic Man should be obvious. 


Participants also spent a good deal of time reflecting on, and working through, activities designed to highlight the way their own attitudes and histories of sex, gender, race, and ethnicity had shaped them as learners.  These sessions were invariably highly charged.  Emotions ran high as economists recounted personal stories of being shunned, or humiliated for who they were; we heard stories about the shame people felt when they realized that their parents were racist,  homophobic, or anti-semitic; others told of how they had participated in harassing behaviors; still others revealed that they hadn’t known that whiteness was itself a racial identity. I cannot count the number of people who told me that these sessions provided some of their sharpest insights into the problems with the mainstream approach. 


Providing a venue for self-reflection is also a hallmark of feminist pedagogy.  Feminists have long insisted that social position affects knowledge, and that every view is a point of view.  Feminist epistemology is clear on this point: recognizing that power and privilege shape knowledge leads to more—not less—rigor and “objectivity” in scientific inquiry.


Faculty had to recognize that they too, were marked by the social processes of race, gender, ethnicity, and sexual orientation.   This self-awareness is an essential pre-requisite for creating a classroom where students feel safe enough to self-reveal.  All of our students carry a personal history relative to race, gender, class, sexual orientation, and ethnicity.  Ignoring the emotional underpinnings of their understandings of diversity and the social conflict attendant on diversity virtually guarantees that a classroom discussion will explode with misunderstanding, disrespect, or worse.


Another reason why it was important to self-disclose around our experiences is that this placed the participants outside their “comfort zones.” Faculty (in general) and economists (in particular) are probably not used to talking about feelings, especially not in relationship to economic concepts.  Once they had taken this risk and discovered that the group would support them, they could see for themselves that “the economic is as personal” as the “personal is political.”


Only after we had created an atmosphere of trust and community did we turn to the formidable tasks of reinventing introductory micro and macro-economics.  Over the next two days, faculty work groups developed creative exercises, all based on active, collaborative learning, which brought questions of gender and race to the center of classroom economic discussions.  I recall a simulation exercise in which students were to research and the represent the various people who would be affected if a factory in the Southern U.S.A., shut down in order to reopen in El Salvador.  Another group came up with the idea of holding public hearings on Federal Reserve policy, with students representing a wide range of social organizations.  Yet another traced the effects of inflation on different occupational groups.  One of my favorites was a skit of a romantic couple using Becker’s logic to sort out the decision to marry. 


A blind eagle in a blizzard could recognize the connections between this approach to teaching economics and feminist pedagogy.  But what is the connection to critical thinking?


The topics of gender and race are especially helpful for introducing competing points of view because everyone “knows” that people disagree.  As Peter Earl points out, students often believe that disagreement on such issues exist because the “experts” still haven’t discovered the Truth.  I will go out on a limb here and just flat out insist that you cannot disabuse students of this point of view if your reading assignments are confined to a textbook, regardless of its orientation to economics.  That means you need to find articles that students can read—they often need help with this because they are not especially skilled readers—that express different points of view. 


Working in small groups during class will help students learn how to read critically.  In groups of 3 to 5 have them identify the 4 most important points of each of the articles you’ve assigned.  Make sure they reference each important point to a specific paragraph in the essay.  After you’ve gotten these points on the board (and there should be a goodly number of “most important points” since you have 4 points per group) the class discussion can focus on which of these points are most important and why.  By the conclusion of this exercise every student should understand the articles.


Now you have prepared them for selecting the argument with which they agree.  A great homework assignment:  “why I rejected argument X.” 


Critical thinking requires the ability to recognize and understand what are often complex arguments.  In economics, the points of view associated with the heterodox approaches are quite likely to be diametrically opposed to the views of society with which students are familiar.  Getting students to actually “think” about these ideas, rather than see this as an attempt to brainwash them, is tricky. So is getting students to do more than parrot back your politics.  As I’ve argued here, feminism informs a pedagogy which is up to the challenge.



[1] Robin Bartlett and I were co-principal investigators on two NSF sponsored grants that funded three summer faculty development conferences, open to all professors of introductory economics.  We also held follow up sessions at the Allied Social Science Association meetings.  I subsequently received another NSF grant that funded an additional three conferences for professors of economics at community colleges, at women’s colleges, and at historically black colleges and universities.  This later conference became the jumping off point for a Ford Foundation grant aimed at improving economics education at Historically Black Colleges and Universities.


2 I apologize in advance for any errors here as I am reconstructing these programs from memory.   I am on leave in Adelaide, Australia and all my notes, grant applications, and conference schedules are on computers in Portland, Maine.



The inaugural article framing this critique of mainstream education appeared in The Journal of Economic Education, See S. Feiner and B. Morgan, Fall, 1987, “Women and Minorities in Introductory Economics Textbooks: 1974 to 1984."


Two relevant essays appearing in The American Economic Review are: S. Feiner and B. Roberts, May 1995, "Using an Alternative Paradigm to Teach Race, Gender and Critical Thinking," and S. Feiner and R. Bartlett, May 1992,  "Balancing the Economics Curriculum: Method, Content and Pedagogy."


For an explicit discussion of the connections between mainstream method, economic education, and racial/sexual bias see, S. Feiner and B. Roberts,  "Hidden by the Invisible Hand: Neoclassical Economic Theory and the Textbook Treatment of Minorities and Women," in Gender & Society, June, 1990.

For an excellent discussion of the educational theory of W. G. Perry that Peter Earl drew upon in his article in the last issue of this review, click here.


Susan Feiner, “Toward a Post-Autistic Economics Education” , post-autistic economics review, issue no. 12, March 15, 2002, article 2.
Susan Feiner is the editor of Race and Gender in the American Economy: Views Across the Spectrum