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posted April 2003


Post-Autistic Praxis:
The Student’s Role in Applying Theories to Classrooms

Becky Clausen   (Graduate student, University of Oregon, USA)


An intellectual movement’s success can be measured by its access to a large audience, the degree to which offers substance and how much it inspires others to action.  The Post-Autistic Economics movement has both broad international reach and content as witnessed by the robust Post Autistic Economics website. This report describes how the PAE movement has inspired me to examine my academic institution’s economics department and begin a process of much needed reform. 


Evidence of the Post-Autistic Economics movement achieving this benchmark of success lies in two criterion that serve to guide students in their attempt for reform:  (1) an inaugural student body that has initiated the challenge to conventional academic economics, and (2) principal writers and thinkers who have offered concrete direction for how to transform economics’ narrowly confined discipline into a heterodox analysis.  


The PAE movement has inspired and empowered students like myself to begin individual inquiry into their respective university’s economics departments, and in turn to day-light the pedagogy, methodology, and safe-guarded channels of conformity that allow conventional economics to persist and reproduce in the academic setting. Exposure to the PAE movement has encouraged me to understand the forces shaping the ideology of my economics department at the University of Oregon, and to apply the broad PAE theories to a tangible classroom reality.


It is through this praxis that substantial reform in academic economics will occur.


It is difficult for students to overcome the stifling persuasion of conventional economics professors. Well versed in rationalizing why one must accept certain economic assumptions as ‘inevitable’, the in-place professoriate presents a formidable challenge.  Examples of resistance are necessary.  The open letters of discontent from international students and faculty, which serve as a foundation for the PAE movement, provide those examples.  The powerful messages offered by international students who challenged economics assumptions, such as the French Petition for a Debate on the Teaching of Economics, the Cambridge 27 letter, and the Kansas City Proposal, inspire students in other universities to question the “scientific facts” that their textbooks espouse.  Once I learned of the discontent at leading institutions of the international student body, I became enthused and engaged to query the institution to which I was relying on for my economics education.


Unbridled enthusiasm without a clear understanding of the economic problems and potential solutions, however, will not elicit support or achieve results.   To sustain the momentum of intellectual challenge, access to a critical body of knowledge is essential and serves as a foundation for reform.  Critical thinkers within the PAE movement have offered suggestions through debates, essays, and published literature.  The time has come for students to embrace these theories and apply them to their own academic classrooms. 


By familiarizing myself with the leading critiques of conventional academic economics and the alternatives for heterodoxy and pluralism, I was able to assess the status of the University of Oregon’s economics department.  Reform will occur when students can speak to the specific shortcomings of their institution's economics department, rather than relying on generalized characterizations.  What follows is the process I undertook to connect the theories I was learning from the PAE movement with my experience as a student.  This report serves as one specific example of the process a student can begin to engage reform, and thus perhaps inspire other economics students to follow a similar course.


In Issue 15 of the PAE newsletter, James K. Galbraith wrote, “We need a replacement for neoclassical economics. A new curriculum. Let’s build it.1  Galbraith supported his definitive statements with ten suggestions for how to reform economics. I read this article as a direct call to action, and began to reflect on the strategy required to achieve his suggestions.  I chose three of his characterizations to analyze where my school ranked on their need for reform:  (1) the need to teach economic history, (2) the need for empirical methodology, and (3) the rejection of disciplinary conformity.  By starting with these topic areas, I used literature searches and my independent research to evaluate the extent of reform required at the University of Oregon. 


To start, Galbraith suggested, “Our economics should teach the great thinkers, notably Smith, Marx, Keynes, Veblen and Schumpeter…the great ideas in these areas, and the history in which they were embedded, are fundamental. They should be taught, and not as dogma but rather as a sequence of explorations.2  This statement caused me to ask, “What are the trends for teaching the history of economics in US institutions and at the UO?”  To answer this question, I explored how economic pedagogy addresses the history of economic thought. 


Diedre McCloskey, a history of economics professor at the University of Illinois, at Chicago, reports that in the 1970s and 1980s, graduate programs began to cut the requirement of learning economic history.  She states, “Ph.D.s in economics from the University of Chicago have joined those at Minnesota, Princeton, Columbia, Harvard, and most American graduate programs in ignorance of the economic past.3   Steve Keen, an economics professor at the University of Western Sydney, concurs that  “many economists are simply unaware that the foundations of economics have even been disputed, let alone that these critiques have motivated prominent economists to profoundly change their views4.”   Lacking an analysis of how economic thought has evolved leaves an economist with little ability to assess the assumptions underlying current theories.  Henry Phelps argued this point when he blamed the economists’ “habit of building make-believe worlds on the failure to train economists in the study of history5.”  These strong accusations generalize on the state of academic economics, but do they accurately represent the University of Oregon?  


An investigation into UO course requirements and class listings reveal a definite affirmative.  Although one elective is listed at the 400 level titled the History of Economic Thought, there is no requirement for undergraduate or graduate students to take this course, nor are there any requirements for incoming graduate students to have any familiarity with economic history. This typifies the decreasing institutional means for ensuring that students grasp the critical and tumultuous evolution of their supposed discipline of expertise.  The result is that current academia is populated with a professoriate that embraces key economic assumptions as unassailable reality while in fact the merit of fundamental assumptions is at best dubious and at worst defeated in the course of a highly controversial birth.


My second investigation was spurred by Galbraith’s suggestion that, “Mathematics should mainly clarify the complex implications of simple constructs, not obscure simple ideas behind complex formulae... Mathematics should lie, in other words, at the essential core of a new curriculum; it should not be deployed defensively, as the protective belt.6  This statement caused me to question the methodologies currently being promoted by economics departments. The Methodology of Economics by Blaug expounds on the ways in which economists currently justify their theories.  Blaug claims that economists are not inclined to appraise economic theories in terms of their novel empirical content, but rather to rely solely on mathematical models.  By lacking the ability to explain current economic conditions with empirical data, it appears that modern day methodologies depend on whether you can ‘do the math.’  This reflects a species of formalism: the reveling in technique for techniques’ sake7.  Leontief emphasized this claim by stating economists’ “continued preoccupation with imaginary, hypothetic, rather than with observable reality had gradually led to a distortion of the informal valuation scale used in our academic community to assess and to rank the scientific performance of its members.8   The informal scale used to rank academic economists is often reflected in the number of mainstream, conventional journal publications they secure each year.  If the top journals espouse the same criteria for admittance, than a self-selected, methodological conformity is the unavoidable outcome.  What methodological trends do the top economic journals espouse?


In a letter to Science, Leontief surveyed articles published in the American Economic Review in the last decade and found that more than 50 percent consisted of mathematical models without any empirical data9.  Morgan followed up with the survey and found that over half the articles in Economic Journal do not contain data of any kind, a ration that vastly exceeds that found in articles in physics and chemistry journals10.   The high esteem placed on publishing in prestigious journals, and therefore relying heavily on mathematics rather than empirical data, is indoctrinated into students as well.  Colander and Klamer have shown that American graduate students perceive that analytical ability is the chief requirement for professionalism, and only 3½ percent of students chose “knowledge of the economy” as important11.  Keen summarizes academic methodological unreality and conformity by stating “when it comes to safeguarding the channels of academic advancement, little else matters apart from preserving the set of assumptions that defines economic orthodoxy.12 


The means for safeguarding orthodoxy led to my final investigation based on Galbraith’s recommendation:


Nor should we accept the reconstruction of economics as an amalgam of interest-group politics. This approach …has become a way of isolating certain dissenters who cannot conveniently be suppressed. But the fact that race, gender, and the environment are important social constructs does not mean that economics requires a separate branch for the economics of race, another for the economics of gender, and another for “sustainable development.” It should instead mean that the core of what we teach should handle these questions in a way that is central to the discipline we espouse13.


The question concerning how the sub-disciplines are treated within the UO economics department led me discover the narrowly defined reward/advancement system in which economics professors are evaluated. In an interview with a tenured economics professor at the UO, I learned that each year, the professors are evaluated by a weighted point system.  Publication in a prestigious, orthodox journal (such as the American Economic Review) will result in acquiring the highest weighted point score as compared to getting published in a more heterodox journal, such as the Journal of Ecological Economics or Feminist Economics, which is given a lower weight. This evaluation system pressures academic economists to maintain the status quo of a methodology that does not recognize the current economic conditions, and conveniently suppresses those who may be dissenters of conventional economics.


What I have presented in this report will undoubtedly come as no surprise to many of the professionals, professors, and students who embrace the PAE movement. The emphasis, however, lies in demonstrating the power of discovery that is enabled through praxis.  Capturing the inspiration from the student-initiated international movement and the wisdom of critical thinkers, such as Galbraith, has motivated me to ask critical questions.  Through this method of inquiry, I am now able to relay specific concerns that may rally fellow graduate students, or spark alliances with other disciplines.  I now have initial understanding for reaching out to fellow students, defining key institutional problems and perhaps presenting detailed requests that may be forwarded to the appropriate departmental committee. At a minimum, we must work to reinstate the History of Economics requirement, and then move address the departmental channels which limit heterodox methodology.  When individual students accept responsibility and challenge the veiled institutional forces that dictate the methods and content of their educational environment, meaningful economic reform becomes a realistic goal.  





1. James K. Galbraith, “Can we please move on? A note on the Guerrien Debate”, post-autistic economics review,

   issue number 15, September 4 2002, article2.

2. James K. Galbraith, ibid.

3. Deirdre McCloskey, The Secret Sins of Economics (Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press, 2002) 29.

4. Steve Keen, Debunking Economics (Australia: Pluto Press, 2001) 4.

5. Henry Phelps, The underdevelopment of economics (Economic Journal 82, 1972) 1-10.

6. James K. Galbraith, ibid.

7. Mark Blaug, The Methodology of Economics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992).

8. Wassily Leontief, Theoretical assumptions and nonobserved facts (American Economic Review 61,

   1971) 31-45.

9. Wassily Leontief, Academic economics (Science 217, 1983) 331-6.

10. T. Morgan, Theory versus empiricism in academic economics:  update and comparison  (Journal of

   Economic Perspectives 2(1), 1988) 159-64.

11. D. Colander and A. Klamer, The making of an economist (Journal of Economic Perspectives 1(2),

   1987) 95-111.

12. Keen, 154.

13.James K. Galbraith, ibid.



Blaug, Mark. 1992.  The Methodology of Economics.  Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press.


Colander, D., and A. Klamer, 1987.  The making of an economist.  Journal of Economic Perspectives, 1(2), 95-111.


Galbraith, James K., “Can we please move on?  A not on the Guerrien debate”, post-autistic economics review, issue no. 15, September 4 2002, article 2.


Keen, Steve. 2001. Debunking Economics.  Australia:  Pluto Press.


Leontief, W. 1971. Theoretical assumptions and nonobserved facts.  American Economic Review, 61, 1-7.


1982. Academic economics. Science, 217, 1983, 331-6.


McCloskey, Deidre. 2002.  The Secret Sins of Economics.  Chicago:  Prickly Paradigm Press.


Morgan, T. 1988.  Theory versus empiricism in academic economics: update and comparison.  Journal of Economic Perspectives, 2(1), 159-64.


Phelps, Harry. 1972. The underdevelopment of economics.  Economic Journal, 82, 1-10.