We need more foxes and fewer hedgehogs

May 22, 2014

In his essay The Hedgehog and the Fox, Isaiah Berlin, the philosopher, drew on an ancient Greek aphorism to classify famous writers. He wanted to distinguish between those who view the world through the lens of a single defining idea, like a hedgehog (whose big idea is to roll up in a ball in the face of danger), and those who draw on a wide variety of experiences in the way they see the world and its problems.

Berlin’s classification may help us to understand different perspectives being taken in the post-crisis debate on macroeconomics. Those who have come to dominate the field are in the first category – they seek to use one framework as the lens with which to view the world; and, thanks to this unifying “microfounded” model, they see economics as a science. By contrast, their critics can be regarded as foxes, ready to use whatever approach seems most suitable for the problem at hand – viewing economics as a problem-solving discipline.

One peculiar problem with today’s dominant paradigm, based on a representative agent with “rational expectations” and efficient financial markets, is this: it is so well behaved that crises are unimaginable. Recall the episode in 2009 when the Queen, on a visit to a leading school of economics, asked why economists there had not seen the crisis coming. The answer given was that the lack of foresight had many causes, but it was principally “a failure of imagination”.

How to escape from this intellectual straitjacket where crises are assumed away? The answer is what students are calling for: greater pluralism in an eclectic, problem-oriented approach. More fox, less hedgehog.

Marcus Miller
Professor of economics
University of Warwick

 

Your article “Manchester students take on economics curriculum in report” (News, www.timeshighereducation.co.uk, 22 April) highlights concerns about the teaching of economics in UK universities and a wider debate about the syllabus for undergraduate economics degrees. Do we focus too much on imparting the technical foundations of our own research? Do students experience a sufficient diversity of viewpoints?

These questions matter, and not just for students and staff. The quality of discussion of economic policy in the mainstream media is poor (most bandwidth goes to politicians, variously claiming credit or assigning blame for the latest ephemeral statistics, and credulous journalists who buy into this babble to make a story). This cannot be blamed just on shortcomings of university education, but undergraduate economics students acquire few of the skills needed to cut through this nonsense.

Employers are also unsatisfied. Economics graduates, in common with those of most other disciplines, do not have the writing and communication abilities needed to make an immediate contribution in a professional environment. So change is needed, but we also need to be careful. The call for greater diversity in undergraduate economics could result in much too great a burden of material (economic history, history of economic thought, political economy, radical perspectives on economics and so on). There is not room for everything.

I believe that constructive change will involve three things: (i) a better balance of technicalities and practical application in core modules (micro, macro, numerical methods); (ii) a minimum proportion of the syllabus (perhaps 15-20 credits a year) devoted to softer or non-economics modules, giving students alternative perspectives and institutional understanding; and (iii) (as is happening across higher education) integration of presentation, discussion and communication skills from the first year of the degree onwards.

Alistair Milne
Professor of financial economics
Loughborough University

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