Economic Woman

Econometrics, gender, equity and more.

Pluralism in the classroom

with 5 comments

Readers responding to Economic Woman often describe their first experience with economics – an introductory course in university, generally – with a mixture of disdain and repressed trauma. If only their professor had taught some of this stuff, they suggest,they might have stuck around in the discipline long enough to learn something.

I’ve always been struck at the difference in teaching methods between economics and my other major, international relations. The political science courses associate with international relations present several perspectives on each topic, citing particular theorists throughout, while introductory econ courses cover a subset of our knowledge as a supposedly coherent whole, usually with no references at all. There’s a particular sort of student, who has taken first year economics and accepted all of it as gospel, but hasn’t gone on to later courses, where everything gets more complicated. He or she spends a lot of time proselytizing for the internalizing of externalities, I find.

The realist/liberal/constructivist division in political science courses irritates me sometimes, because it avoids the work figuring out which lens is most useful or correct. But the disconnect between scholarly discourse in economics – where almost everything is up for debate, and many of the models taught in first year are decades out of date – and the single model built in first year courses is just as unrealistic.

All this is a very long lead-up for a link to a new journal that seeks to change all this: the International Journal of Pluralism and Economics Education. It’s probably too far outside the mainstream to affect my own dusty department, but I’m glad someone is thinking and writing about this stuff. The description quotes a petition by French university students:

Of all the approaches to economic questions that exist, generally only one is presented to us. This approach is supposed to explain everything by means of a purely axiomatic process, as if this were the economic truth. We do not accept this dogmatism. We want a pluralism of approaches, adapted to the complexity of the objects and to the uncertainty surrounding most of the big questions in economics.



Written by Allison

11 September 2008 at 12:02 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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5 Responses

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  1. Actually, the standard intro texts (e.g. Mankiw, Parkin, and others) do a pretty good job of emphasizing that the models presented in them do not capture the whole of reality. Rather, they present the models as “workhorses” around which to organize our thinking and use as a jumping off point.

    Many people simply decry a caricature of economists. I for one, have never known, read, or heard an economists who thinks perfect competition exists, or that even the most complex models explain everything. But understanding what would prevail under conditions of PC helps to conceptualize deviations from it.

    Finally, I don’t know what people are talking about when they say economists don’t accept a plurality of approaches. Behavioral economics, Neuroeconomics, and experimental economics have all challenged the assumptions of neoclassical theory, and much of it has been incorporated into newer models.

    I think you are way overstating your case here.


    11 September 2008 at 5:46 pm

  2. I think you have a real point here. Those who only take one course are taking a course from someone who almost certainly had a rigid, cold-war-era-ideology-proselytizing intro-course themselves. And that cohort created today’s Republican party, who seem to be trying to implement a caricature of 1965-1985 economic theory.

    PhD economists know intelligent economic political viewpoints span the spectrum. Non-economists (and in particular those who drank the Kool-aid of a cold-war era ideology) seem to think economists, just like God, support the Republicans.

    Mankiw’s text is good — I’m using it for the first time — but that was first published in 1994, I believe. There are a lot of adults with a limited and dated understanding of economics.


    11 September 2008 at 10:28 pm

  3. I took ECO100 at UofT and the approach definitely wasn’t scholarly; there was no exposure to schools of thought or disputes beyond the standard takes on Locke, Keynes, and Friedman.

    That being said, I think it was a very valuable learning experience, mostly because it gave me a new way of thinking about how the world works. Before the course, economics was almost just as a bag of keywords that are thrown around in business news reports.

    Andrew Louis

    12 September 2008 at 3:04 am

  4. That’s interesting – I agree wholeheartedly with the post. I studied economics for three years. I had to effectively unlearn a lot of what I learned by the time I got past the introductory classes. Or, learn a new way of thinking about them. The first classes I took reminded me of learning in school (so, high school, but I am in the UK so just school to me, I mean, pre-18). I also think I did a better job of learning economics in my own time, in terms of understanding the abundance of approaches. It’s actually what’s intuitive about it. Sitting in class and being lectured to about just one way of thinking actually seems wrong.

    I was lucky that I had a teacher embodying a non-mainstream approach who spent a lot of time with me; if not, it would have been very easy to just eat up what was presented.

    Where textbooks and introductory lectures mention that they are “workhorses”, it’s like they are only paying lip-service. It might say something to that effect in the opening paragraph, but it tends to be followed by 30 pages of “fact” (the understanding of which, at the end of the day, is what you end up being measured against).


    12 September 2008 at 11:21 am

  5. I tend to agree with Joey. Undergraduates just coming into contact with economics need a basic framework. Most of the introductory models, although unrealistic when applied to specific, real world situations, do help people focus on the essential relation between variables and conceptualize deviations from a theoritically perfect outcome.

    Further, with that in mind, it seems unwieldly to suggest that more pluralism could be incorporated into a semester long curriculum. In an intermediate micro course, you cover the standards on consumers, suppliers, markets, etc. In macro, you have to do IS/LM, medium run, etc. How are you going to add more complex topics, especially when the students are only beginning to grasp some of the nicely established models?

    Certainly, dogmaticism in presentation could be reduced in some intro courses. But, that doesn’t change much. Again, it’s just hard for me to envision really jamming more into the typical first offerings in economics (intro micro/macro, intermediates). Perhaps you could add a special topics, heterdox course for students just after they’ve taken the intermediate level economics.

    Lastly, in my experience, math is the most common complaint I hear regarding introductory experiences in economics. Economics differs from its social science bretheren in its attempt to be a mathematical science. I think this throws people who are more familiar with the international relations, philosophy or political science presentation. Here, they might find economics dull – they are interested in social science questions, yet they find themselves learning technical mathematics.


    15 September 2008 at 7:28 pm

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