Petition for a Debate on the Teaching of Economics
This petition raises the
1. the exclusion of theory that is not neoclassical from the
2. the mismatch between economics teaching and economic reality,
3. the use of mathematics as an end in itself rather than as a
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
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"
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 WORLD,
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.