Petition for a Debate on the Teaching of Economics
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
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
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
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"
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.