Getting to the CORE of curriculum reform

by Severin Reissl

*As always, the views expressed in this post are my own and do not necessarily represent those of either GURWES or ISIPE*

Over the past few weeks, the manifesto of the International Student Initiative for Pluralist Economics, of which GURWES is a member, has made quite an impressive impact. We have had considerable media coverage in a large number of countries, the size of the initiative has grown to 65 student groups from 30 countries, we have so far had 2400 individuals signing up in support (if you have not yet done so, please consider supporting the manifesto at www.isipe.net), and have had some reactions from academia, most of which were very positive.

Perhaps the most encouraging reaction has come from Steve Keen who, upon accepting a post as head of the School of Economics, History and Politics at Kingston University, explicitly vowed to react to the propositions for reform made by the movement. Kingston now, even more so than before, seems to be the place to go for a genuine education in economics in Europe.

A rather more questionable response was produced by John Kay, board member of INET, in the Financial Times. Kay, naturally, is a big fan of INET’s Curriculum in Open-access Resources in Economics (CORE) project, and for this reason rather dismissive of the more far-reaching reforms ISIPE has called for.

Before I deal with Kay’s article in particular, a few points on CORE in general:

  • Before the existence of CORE, a committee, headed by Lord Robert Skidelsky and initiated by INET, had already broadly outlined a set of desirable changes any curriculum reform should make. The content of this outline was in fact much closer to the spirit of the ISIPE manifesto. What became of it, however, is unclear. CORE does not make any reference to it and what is available of CORE at the moment misses many of the vital points made by the Skidelsky-committee.
  • CORE is headed by a group of economists with little discernable qualification to include diverse and alternative approaches to economics into a new curriculum. Some allowance has been made for the more palatable approaches such as behavioural economics and agent-based modelling and, laudably, some non-economists also seem to be included in the list of contributors. But as far as I can see, there is no one among the list of contributors who could reasonably be considered heterodox, in contrast with the earlier committee headed by Skidelsky. Why the sudden change of heart?
  • The CORE people are quite happy to cite coverage of ISIPE on their website as supporting their particular efforts despite the fact that, as Neil Lancastle has noted, none of the CORE contributors have so far signed up to support ISIPE, which shouldn’t really come as a surprise at all.

 

The general attitude underlying CORE can perhaps best be described by commenting on its perception of itself, drawing on the CORE website. I have written the following previously in an internal document:

The CORE project specifically aims to remedy three perceived defects or “gaps”, as they put it:

(1) “The gap between what economists now know and what we teach undergraduates.”

(2) “The gap between the questions we are being pressed to answer by the public (including the questions that brought students into our classrooms) and the often-unrelated content of our curriculum.”

(3) “The gap between conventional text-and-lecture methods and available low-cost, individualised and interactive learning technologies.”

 

(1): To me, this sounds a lot like the “just wait until 2nd/3rd/4th year. Everything will be much better then”, which you always get to hear from economics lecturers. Frankly, this sentence is a pretty dishonest cop-out. Think about what it really says: “We actually know better, we just never told you. There isn’t really any problem with the discipline at all. Curricula just haven’t caught up with the state of knowledge.” While it may in fact be true that some curricula lag behind some of the newer developments in mainstream economics, the suggestion that these new developments remedy all defects of current teaching is wrong. This statement also separates the problem of teaching from problems of the discipline itself, two issues which are in fact inherently intertwined and cannot be addressed separately.

 

(2): Yet again, this suggests that today’s orthodox economists actually have the single correct answers to all those questions, they just don’t bother to teach them. I disagree with this for two reasons. First, it is obviously not true that all those famous economists know the answer to all economic questions. They really don’t. Not even the ones with a Nobel Prize. Second, it also suggests that there is one correct answer to any economic problem, and the only problem is finding it and then teaching this one answer. While anyone is certainly entitled to believe this, I think it is a thoroughly bad basis for teaching a social science. What we really need is for economics to be taught like any other social science: Based on the presentation of contradictory and incompatible points of view, the encouragement of critical thinking and discussion, as well as self-reflection on the nature of the discipline itself and its methodology. Other social sciences seem to have enough confidence in their students’ ability to evaluate diverse perspectives to actually include them in their curricula.

 

(3): This is trying to address issues pertaining not to what is taught, but how it is taught. Funky learning gadgets are nice and all, but I would consider this issue to be at best of secondary importance. “Mainstream reformers”, if the term is allowed, seem to think that a major part of the problem is that academics who are employed by universities primarily for their research activity rather than as instructors are simply often bad teachers. Drawing from my own experience, I would disagree. The quality of the teaching I have received at university (regardless of my opinion on its content) has generally been of a very high quality, and has been so in all subjects I have studied. I consider this a pseudo-problem, serving to divert attention from the real issues at hand.

This last point makes a nice link to John Kay’s article, for he in fact makes the same argument saying that:

“One cause of the problem is not specific to economics. Modern universities prize research above teaching[…]. In reality, teaching ability plays a negligible role in university hiring, tenure and promotion decisions.”

I do not recall that any student initiative has ever complained about the quality of the teaching itself, rather than its specific content, making this a rather weak point. Kay goes on to say that:

“most economics professors are probably mildly to the left of the political spectrum”,

in defence against the claim that much of mainstream economics is ideologically motivated. Whilst I find this evaluation questionable in any case, I think it is also too simplistic to reduce the question of whether economics is ideological to the simple left-right dichotomy, rather than to understand the concept of an “ideology” more broadly. Whether they are “mildly to the left” or recognisably right, there is in fact a rather well defined set of ideas, ideals, and views of how the world works or should work which unites mainstream economists. It is in this light that Kay’s most dismissive point should be seen:

“Their demand for more pluralism in the economics curriculum is well made. Yet much of the “heterodox economics” the Manchester students suggest including is flaky, the creation of people with their own political agenda, whether Marxist or neoliberal; or of those who cannot do the mathematics the dominant rational choice paradigm requires. Their professors reject the introduction of these alternative schemes for the same good reasons their science colleagues would reject phlogiston theory or creationism.”

As I have written elsewhere, this generalisation not only reveals a shocking lack of knowledge about heterodox approaches, but also an equally blatant unawareness of the metaphysical and ideological foundations of the “dominant rational choice paradigm”. In addition, it is interesting to note that many of the most prominent economists who cautioned against the uncritical use of mathematical methods in fact themselves held degrees in mathematics (e.g. Keynes, Minsky, and we could also include Marshall in this category). Hence the claim that anyone who disagrees with these approaches must be too stupid to understand them looks very weak indeed. The mathematics used in “modern” macroeconomics in particular is not half as complicated, sophisticated, or in line with advances in mathematics itself as Kay seems to think it is. The last part of this statement is perhaps the most perfidious one in the whole article. The example of phlogiston theory is in fact a quite interesting one to look at. It would appear that this theory fell from favour after it repeatedly failed to be confirmed by empirical evidence. If this, as Kay thinks, is indeed the attitude professors take in evaluating which approaches to teach and which to disregard, why, for example, am I still being taught RBC theory? Why are concepts which are effectively incapable of being tested and hence falsified being taught as “scientific”? It would appear that the matter is not quite as simple as Professor Kay seems to believe. Limping analogies between the natural and social sciences cannot hide the fact that the labelling of alternatives as “unscientific” is often simply a knee-jerk reaction, and a hypocritical one at that.

Kay then goes on to instead recommend CORE as a potent alternative to the demands voiced by the student movement. The problems with CORE have been laid out above. In a letter to the FT, Alvin Birdi, argues that

“To suggest that there is only one way to “rethink economics” has the flavour of replacing one orthodoxy with another.”

While this may be true, there is certainly one way not to rethink economics, which is to put those who came up with the previous approaches in sole charge of devising the new ones. This is the direction CORE seems to be heading in, and contrary to Mr Birdi, I think that creating a new, only slightly altered orthodoxy is precisely what CORE will do. I hope I am wrong.

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