Economics teaching ‘far too narrow’, claims new book

Authors suggest something has gone badly wrong with economics as an academic discipline

November 17, 2016
Man reverses his car into a narrow space
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Narrow-minded? Economics is treated as ‘a closed, fixed body of knowledge’, say three economics graduates in their critical new book

Three economics graduates have savaged the way the subject is taught at many universities.

Joe Earle, Cahal Moran and Zach Ward-Perkins are all, they write in The Econocracy: The Perils of Leaving Economics to the Experts, “of the generation that came of age in the maelstrom of the 2008 global financial crisis” and embarked on economics degrees at the University of Manchester in 2011 precisely in order to better “understand and shape the world”.

By their second year, they were sufficiently disillusioned to start “a campaign to reform economics education”, and they became active members of the Rethinking Economics network, which currently has over 40 groups in 13 countries. Their book sets out to examine how far their own experience is symptomatic of a more general malaise. 

In order to do so, the authors carried out, they believe for the first time, “an in-depth curriculum review of seven [elite British] Russell Group universities…the course guides and examinations”, making a total of 174 economics modules in all.

What emerged was “a remarkable similarity in the content and structure of economics courses”, where “students only learn one particular type of [neoclassical] economics” and “are taught to accept this type of economics in an uncritical manner”.

In developing these arguments, the authors point to “the central role textbooks play” in economics degrees, even though in other social sciences students are expected to “engag[e] critically with the discipline’s academic literature”, in order to gain “an understanding of the debates and research agendas” and to “engage independently and critically with academics while improving research and review skills”.

Economics, in contrast, is treated as “a closed, fixed body of knowledge…It is as if students must be initiated into neoclassical economics in a way that shields them entirely from the real world, potential criticism or alternatives.”

Such deficiencies in syllabuses, in the authors’ view, have a notable impact on the sensibilities and skills of those who graduate.

The kind of “critical and independent thinking…essential not only for academia but for participating in social and political life and succeeding in the working world” remains “almost completely absent from economics education” across Britain and beyond.

The consequence is that “the people who are entrusted to run our economy are in almost no way taught to think about it critically. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that it is now possible to go through an economics degree without once having to venture an opinion.”

Joe Earle, Cahal Moran and Zach Ward-Perkins’ The Econocracy: The Perils of Leaving Economics to the Experts was recently published by Manchester University Press. 

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