Students plead for less maths

July 7, 2000

French economics students have launched an internet petition protesting that their courses are too mathematical, theoretical and divorced from reality, and demanding "a pluralistic approach" to the subject.

Students at the Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris set up the petition, in the form of an open letter to teachers and officials in charge of economics courses, after starting to question the relevance of what they were being taught. Within two weeks they had over 500 signatures from students at universities and grandes ecoles throughout France and as far afield as Hamburg and Florence.

"Most of us chose to study economics to gain an in-depth understanding of the economic phenomena faced by the citizen of today," says the letter. "And yet usually the teaching we are given - in most cases neo-classical theory or related approaches - does not meet expectations."

The letter condemns what it calls the "uncontrolled use of mathematics", which it says has become an end in itself, leading to "schizophrenia in relation to the real world", and calls for "a pluralism of approaches to economics".

Too often courses do not allow scope for debate, it says, and usually present only one view - "the" economic truth. "We do not accept this dogmatism," the letter states. "We want a multiplicity of explanations, adapted to the complexity of the subjects and the uncertainty that hangs over most of the great economic questions - unemployment, inequality, the place of finance, the pros and cons of free trade, etc."

If changes are not made soon, students, "who have already started a movement of withdrawal, will desert en masse from a course that has become uninteresting because it is cut off from the realities and debates of the contemporary world", it concludes.

The students' complaints are echoed in a report commissioned by the education ministry on the teaching of economics. Lecturer Michel Verni res highlighted the "too abstract and formalised content of university training".

Support also came from Jean-Paul Fitoussi, chairman of the economics agregation, the high-level exam for teacher recruitment. Interviewed in Le Monde, he said that the students were right to criticise the way economics was taught in France. Mathematics was just an instrument that it was necessary to know how to use, he said, and if it took up all the time, it led to "the disembodiment of economic debate". Economic knowledge required a diversity of explanations, he said.

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