Teaching Pluralist Economics

Pluralist Economicsby Prof Ares Kalandides*

Teaching economics to postgraduate students with no or very little background in economics is not an easy thing to do. How do you communicate the intricacies of economic thought to those with a background in architecture and planning – as I often have to do in a Master’s programme in Urban Management at the Technical University in Berlin? It has however proven to be much easier that teaching students who do have a background in economics, but only of the neoclassical school.

I have been teaching a course in Urban Economics for five years now, mostly using approaches from Economic Geography and Political Economy. However, the recent movement of Rethinking Economics at the University of Manchester inspired me to try out an experiment. Starting this past October (2017) I begin every two-hour session with a 30-minute “Introduction to schools of economic thought”, trying to reduce different schools (past and current) to some basic, simple principles that students can follow. This far we’ve been through the Classical and Marxian schools, Neoclassical, (post-)Keynesian and Austrian, (Neo-)Institutionalist and Behaviourist, Ecological and Feminist Economics. Cooperative, Developmental and Schumpeterian Economics will follow in the months to come.

The reaction is astonishing! In student feedback (which I try to integrate at the end of most sessions), the “Introduction to schools of economic thought” gets the highest scores – and students wish they had more time for it. This is not to be taken for granted. This is a Master’s programme oriented towards practitioners and designed to provide them with very practical tools of how to manage cities now and in the future.  Theoretical approaches are of course covered, but they are neither the programme’s main focus nor particularly popular among students. So why are they so thirsty to find out more about different approaches to economics? I can only take guesses at that: the study of Economics, and by that I mean of mainstream, orthodox, neoclassical economics, has built a fortress of impenetrable, mathematical language around it. This intimidates most people and in particular, but not only, women. An “Introduction to schools of economic thought” is liberating. Whereas I do not deny the beauty and clarity of mathematical models nor do I want to suggest that neoclassical approaches are in any way not useful, it is important for students to understand that there are other ways of approaching economics than just through mathematical abstractions. It is clear that students want to understand what is going on in the world around them, and more that this: they want to be able to change it.

There are both ontological and epistemological issues here. If economics is the study of the economy, then the first question is “What is the economy?” How you answer that question is fundamental. Do we conceptualize the economy as a closed function, where everything else is delegated to “externalities” or do we understand it as a social system, in itself part of a broader ecological system? If it is the latter, then the environment, society, gender, psychology are integral aspects of the economy – and must thus be part of economics. In brief, whether we understand economics as an exact or a social science is the basic issue here, which will also define the methods we use to answer further questions.

Students who have had a (neoclassical) education in economics are a special case here, because they doubt that what I teach is economics in the first place. Most of the time, not always, they accept the limitations of the neoclassical approach, but they still use its basic assumptions. As I do not reduce the real world to mathematical models, for them I am teaching something else (what? I wonder), but not economics.

How to teach Pluralist Economics

The Rethinking Economics movement at the Manchester University has been important in encouraging me to integrate this new feature into my syllabus. It is students themselves who demanded a curriculum with pluralist approaches to economics – and met the resistance of the orthodox establishment. As they’re gaining momentum, they are now joined by renowned economists who support them in bringing diversity into the teaching of economics. Their textbook, Rethinking Economics, An Introduction to Pluralist Economics (Routledge 2017) is a very good point of departure and I’m sure that the second edition will address many of the weaknesses of the first one. There are however more resources out there, that are very useful, e.g. Robert Heilbronner’s “The Wordly Philosphers”, John Harvey’s “Contending Perspectives in Economics“, Ha-Joon Chang’s “Economics, a User’s Guide”, and many more.

On 12 December 2017, Rethinking Economics and the New Weather Institute published ’33 Theses for an Economics Reformation’ to mark 500 years since the Catholic Reformation. The Theses, which were endorsed by students and economists were nailed to the doors of the London School of Economics, in the legendary Lutheran tradition. The last four theses are dedicated to the teaching of economics:

“29. A good economics education must offer a plurality of theoretical approaches to its students. This should include not only the history and philosophy of economic thought, but also a wide range of current perspectives – such as institutional, Austrian, Marxian, post-Keynesian, feminist, ecological, and complexity.

30. Economics itself should not be a monopoly. Interdisciplinary courses are key to understanding the economic realities of financial crises, poverty, and climate change. Politics, sociology, psychology, and environmental sciences must thus be integrated into the curriculum, without being treated as inferior additions to existing economic theory.

31. Economics should not be taught as a value-neutral study of models and individuals. Economists need to be well versed in ethics and politics, as well as being able to meaningfully engage with the public.

32. An overwhelming focus on statistics and quantitative models can leave economists blinded to other ways of thinking. Students should be supported in exploring other methodological approaches, including qualitative research, interviewing, fieldwork, and theoretical argumentation.

33. Above all, economics must do more to encourage critical thinking, and not simply reward memorisation of theories and implementation of models. Students must be encouraged to compare, contrast, and combine theories, and critically apply them to in-depth case studies of the real world.”

Obviously, I could not agree more.

* Ares Kalandides is Professor of Place Management at Manchester Metropolitan University. He is a also guest lecturer at the Urban Management Programme of the Technical University in Berlin.