humanity and science
No. 1, September 2000
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The French economics mainstream is in a state of shock and apprehension following
dramatic and unexpected events late in June.
On the 21st the influential Paris daily, Le Monde, featured a long
article under the headline "Economics Students Denounce
the Lack of Pluralism in the Teaching
Offered". Economics students at the École
France's premier institution of higher learning, were circulating with great
success a petition protesting against an excessive mathematical
The petition notes "a real schizophrenia" created by
making modelling "an end in itself" and thereby
cutting economics off from reality and forcing it into a state
The students, said a sympathetic Le Monde, call for an end to the
hegemony of neoclassical theory and approaches derived from it, in
favour of a pluralism that will include other approaches,
especially those which permit the consideration of "concrete
realities". Le Monde found French economists of renown,
including Michel Vernières, Jean-Paul Fitoussi and Daniel Cohen, willing to speak out in support
of the students. Fitoussi, current head
of the jury of the economics' agrégation, said that
"the students are right to denounce the way economics is generally
taught" and that the over-use of mathematics "leads to a
disembodiment of economic discourse". Daniel Cohen, economics
professor at the École Normale
Supérieure, spoke of "the pathological
role" played by mathematics in economics. Meanwhile, The
Minister of Education, Jack Lang, assured Le
Monde that he would study closely
the appeal from the students.
French radio and television also reported the students complaints
and confirmed their legitimacy. On the 21st, BFM said that it was now recognized that "the
teaching of economics no longer had any relation with the real
world" and that "this discipline is going through
an undeniable crisis". Also on the 21st, L'Humanité quoted extensively from the students' open
letter, while noting that in recent years several renown economists had
expressed similar views.
On the 23rd, Les Echos
reported that a government report on university economics
teaching had reached conclusions similar to those of the students.
In their lengthy article, Les Echos noted that it is increasingly
recognized that economics' "malaise is general and of
longstanding" and that "under the guise of being scientific"
it has cultivated an anti-scientific environment "which leaves no
room for reflection and debate".
On the 26th, the weekly, Marianne, carried
an article about the student petition against "dogmatism" in
the teaching of economics and for its replacement by "a pluralism of
explanations". Marianne said
that the petition, which was now on the Web, had 500 signatures, as well
as growing support from economics teachers and interest from the highest
levels of the French government.
On June 30th, Le Nouvel
Economiste, referring to the students'
petition and "mobilisation", declared that economics had succumbed
to a "pathological taste for a-priori ideologies and mathematical
formalisation disconnected from reality." Economics, it continued,
should give up its false emulation of physics and "should instead look
to the human sciences".
In July, French media interest continued to fuel the
mobilisation. On the 3rd, La Tribune featured
a long article titled "Why a Reform of the Teaching of
Economics". It began by saying that all concerned parties agree
that economics is in crisis and that "a debate should be opened on this
subject" and that the students' initiative aimed to bring this about.
Economics, said La Tribune, had
become lost in "mondes imaginaires"
and "l'économie de Robinson Crusoé" and intellectually enfeebled by
"the dogmatism that reigns in the teaching of the
Economiques carried an article titled
"The Revolt of the Students" which noted that French Nobel Prize
winner, Maurice Allais had, despite his
mathematical approach, come to conclusions similar to those of the
L'Express, France's equivalent to Time, carried an article "L'économie, science autiste?",
which aired the students' analysis and complaints. It also
reported that the students' petition now had more than 600 signatures, and
that their teachers were now starting a petition of their own in
On the 22nd of July, Politis reported on the students' cause and on
the --"autism" into which economics had fallen in consequence of
its "obsession to produce a social physics". Politis noted
that student support for the petition was widespread, including not only
students from the most prestigious universities, but also from the less
celebrated, both in Paris and in the provinces. "Pluralism should
be part of the cultural base of economists." Instead,
"neoclassical theory dominates because it rests on a simple set of axioms,
easily mathematized." The coming
academic year, concluded Politis, "promises to be agitated."
We have learned that the economics students' petition now has 800 signatures
and the economists' petition 147. The latter includes some of the most
illustrious names in French economics, e.g., Robert Boyer, André Orléan, Michel Aglietta,
Jean-Paul Fitoussi and Daniel Cohen. It
concludes by calling for "a national conference that will open a
public debate for all."
At last month's 10th World Congress of Social Economics at the
University of Cambridge, American participants reported that in the USA the
purge of non-neoclassical and non-mathematically oriented economists from
university faculties continues.
Conferees spoke of the increasing "stalinization"
of the profession. Unlike in France where the fight-back has begun, in
the States there are not yet signs of the formation of the critical mass
needed to turn economics away from 19th century dogmas. It is agreed ,
however, that the number of academic economists in American who are out of
sympathy with the orthodoxy comprise a sizeable minority. But they are
fragmented, often intimidated and lack the means of joining together to exert
their collective weight and moral authority. Meanwhile, it was agreed,
the American economics' clock runs backwards.
American economists at the World Congress traded horror stories about the new
wave of neo-classical "stalinization".
History of economic thought courses are now being targeted as sources of
ideas whereby students might question or place in perspective
orthodoxy. The goal is to create "history-free environments"
in which students can be indoctrinated "more efficiently" into the
neo-classical/mainstream belief system. For example, it was reported
that from this fall the University of North Carolina is discontinuing all
history of thought courses.
American participants also bemoaned plunging standards of literacy among
economics graduate students and colleagues as a consequence of the
mathematics fetish. The illiteracy problem is said to be particularly
acute among new economics PhDs, many of whom are incapable of reading with
comprehension a page of complex prose, such as one from The General Theory.
The ideas expressed by the French students will have a familiar ring to
readers of Tony Lawson's Economics and
Reality (1997). But in Lawson's UK it is reported that
economics students, although restless, are not yet rebellious.
Meanwhile it is rumoured that a French translation of Economics and Reality is imminent.
Interest in the reform campaign launched in France spread quickly to
Belgium. On June 24th under the heading "Economie autiste", the daily, Le Soir, both reported on the
events in France and offered its own analysis of neoclassical economics as a
quaint political ideology masquerading as science.
A week later Le Soir
featured a lengthy article on the crisis in
economics. It draws on a recent report by Michel Vernières, commissioned by the French government to
investigate the teaching of economics. Vernières
emphasises that economic theories are devices for conceptualizing
reality. "Pedagogically, it is therefore essential to articulate
conceptual reflection and empirical investigation. . . . [and] to underline
the plurality of approaches and the overall coherence of these
Bernard Paulré, referring especially to
neoclassical theory, said that mathematics is often used to hide "the
emptiness of the propositions and the absence of any concern for
operational relevance." He said that in addition to a-priori
axioms, it is necessary for economics "to take account of
institutions, of history, of the strategies of actors and of groups, of
sociological dimensions, etc.."
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