Post-Autistic Economics Network







Home Page


PAE Review




translation of  the professors' petition circulated in France



Petition for a Debate on the Teaching of Economics

This petition raises the following problems:

1. the exclusion of theory that is not neoclassical from the curriculum,

2. the mismatch between economics teaching and economic reality,

3. the use of mathematics as an end in itself rather than as a tool,

4. teaching methods that exclude or prohibit critical thinking,

5. the need for a plurality of approaches adapted to the complexity of objects analyzed.

In real sciences, explanation is focused on actual phenomena. The validity and relevancy of a theory can only be assessed through a confrontation with "facts". This is why we, along with many students, deplore the development of a pedagogy in economics privileging the presentation of theories and the building and manipulation of models without considering their empirical relevance. This pedagogy highlights the formal properties of model construction, while largely ignoring the relations of models, if any, to economic realities. This is scientism. Under a scientific approach, on the other hand, the first interest is to demonstrate the informative power and efficiency of an abstraction vis a vis sets of empirical phenomena. This should be the primary task of the economist. It is not a mathematical issue.

The path for "getting back to the facts", however, is not obvious. Every science rests on "facts" that are built up and conceptualized. Different paradigms therefore appear, each of them constituting different families of representation and modalities of interpretation or constructions of reality.

Acknowledging the existence and role of paradigms should not be used as an argument for setting up different citadels, unquestionable from the outside. Paradigms should be confronted and discussed. But this can not be done on the base of a "natural" or immediate representation. One can not avoid using the tools provided by statistics and econometrics. But performing a critical assessment of a model should not be approached on an exclusively quantitative base. No matter how rigorous from a formalistic point of view or tight its statistical fit, any "economic law" or theorem needs always to be assessed for its relevancy and validity regarding the context and type of situation to which it is applied. One also needs to take into account the institutions, history, environmental and geopolitical realities, strategies of actors and groups, the sociological dimensions including gender relations, as well as more epistemological matters. However, these dimensions of economics are cruelly missing in the training of our students.

The situation could be improved by introducing specialized courses. But it is not so much the addition of new courses that is important, but rather the linking of different areas of knowledge in the same training program. Students are calling for this linkage, and we consider them right to do so. The fragmentation of our discipline should be fought against. For example, macroeconomics should emphasize the importance of institutional and ecological constraints, of structures, and of the role of history.

This leads us to the issue of pluraism. Pluralism is not just a matter of ideology, that is of different prejudices or visions to which one is committed to expressing. Instead the existence of different theories is also explained by the nature of the assumed hypotheses, by the questions asked, by the choice of a temporal spectrum, by the boundaries of problems studied, and, not least, by the institutional and historical context.

Pluralism must be part of the basic culture of the economist. People in their research should be free to develop the type and direction of thinking to which their convictions and field of interest lead them. In a rapidly evolving and evermore complex world, it is impossible to avoid and dangerous to discourage alternative representations.

This leads us to question neoclassical theory. The preponderant space it occupies is, of course, inconsistent with pluralism. But there is an even more important issue here. Neoclassicalism's fiction of a "rational" representative agent, its reliance on the notion of equilibrium, and its insistence that prices constitute the main (if not unique) determinant of market behavior are at odds with our own beliefs. Our conception of economics is based on principles of behavior of another kind. These include especially the existence and importance of intersubjectivity between agents, the bounded rationality of agents, the heterogeneity of agents, and the importance of economic behaviors based on non-market factors. Power structures, including organizations, and cultural and social fields should not be a priori excluded.

The fact that in most cases the teaching offered is limited to the neoclassical thesis is questionable also on ethical grounds. Students are led to hold the false belief that not only is neoclassical theory the only scientific stream, but also that scientificity is simply a matter of axiomatics and/or formalized modeling.

With the students, we denounce the naive and abusive conflation that is often made between scientificity and the use of mathematics. The debate on the scientific status of economics can not be limited to the question of using mathematics or not. Furthermore, framing the debate in those terms is actually about deluding people and about avoiding real questions and issues of great importance. These include questioning the object and nature of modeling itself and considering how economics can be redirected toward exploring reality and away from its current focus on resolving "imaginary" problems.

Two fundamental features of university education should be the diversity of the student's degree course and the training of the student in critical thinking. But under the neoclassical regime neither is possible, and often the latter is actively discouraged. Insistence upon mathematical formalism means that most economic phenomena are out-of-bounds both for research and for the economics curriculum. The indefensibleness of these restrictions means that evidence of critical thinking by students is perceived as a dangerous threat. In free societies, this is an unaccpetable state of affairs.

We, economic teachers of the France, give our full support to the claims made by the students. We are particularly concerned with initiatives that may be taken at the local level in order to provide the beginning of answers to their expectations. We also hope these issues will be heard by all economics students in universities everywhere. To facilitate this we are ready to enter a dialogue with students and to be associated with the holding of conferences that will allow the opening of a public debate for all.