Mainstream economists on the defensive

Original Reporting | By Mike Alberti |

Mar. 21, 2012 — Despite the economic meltdown of 2008, the pre-existing, one-sided model of economics education has remained almost entirely intact. Several factors explain the lack of change, but according to many economists, all of those factors boil down to one primary obstacle: “At the most basic level, the reason that we have not seen any reform is that those who are empowered to do the reforming are actually the problem,” said Neva Goodwin, the co-director of the Global Development and Environment Institute at Tufts University.


This article concludes Remapping Debate’s six-part series on the consequences of how economics is and is not taught to undergraduates in the United States. (See Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5 of the series.)

We wanted to know what prominent mainstream economists made of the criticisms that have been leveled at the educational status quo. How do they justify the exclusion of all but one school of economic thought? Do they think that enough is being done to encourage critical thinking among their students? What is the purpose of an economics education?

The answers are quite revealing, and, to critics, explain why it has been so difficult to get alternative models to take root.


This article is based on more than a dozen interviews with prominent mainstream economists, many of whom chair top-ranking departments. I asked them to explain why their students would not benefit from a more open, pluralistic education in economics and, to the extent they believed students would benefit, why so little has changed.


Diversity within the mainstream?

The current model of economics education exposes students to only one school of economic thought, broadly known as neoclassical or mainstream economics. One of the central questions raised by critics is whether teaching one school of thought in isolation can effectively foster the critical thinking skills that are the centerpiece of the liberal philosophy of education.

Mainstream economists generally acknowledged that, by teaching only one perspective, there is a risk that students will not be encouraged to question and probe what they are being taught. But many said that they saw little need for improvement, mainly because they believe that students can be taught to think critically within the confines of neoclassical economics.

“I don’t see that we’re lacking on the critical thinking end,” said Michael Wolkoff, deputy chair of the economics department at the University of Rochester. “Within neoclassical economics there’s plenty of debate and we’re always focused on trying to understand how different assumptions have different outcomes.”

Heterodox economists generally resist the argument that exposure to the debates within neoclassical economics does enough to foster critical thinking in students.

“Especially within neoclassical macroeconomics, the pendulum does swing a bit between different perspectives,” said David Ruccio, a professor of economics at the University of Notre Dame. “But because it’s swinging within the limits of neoclassical economics, those limits are being solidified, which serves to exclude other perspectives. Students aren’t getting the understanding of how much contested terrain there is out there to be explored.”


But we don’t have time…

When presented with that perspective, Wolkoff and others who made similar arguments acknowledged that there were limits to the amount of analytical and evaluative skills that can be learned by studying only one perspective, but they emphasized that with limited time and resources, departments need to make choices about what to offer to students.

“We’re very forward about what we teach. We publicize what our courses are. I don’t blame the Chinese restaurant for serving me Chinese food instead of Italian food.” — Michael Wolkoff, University of Rochester

“The reality is that we aren’t going to be able to offer everything that everyone wants students to learn,” Wolkoff said. “Most of the people teaching our courses think that [neoclassical economists’] unique way of thinking can most successfully describe how things works. Where [neoclassical] economics has a comparative advantage, for example, is in addressing questions of efficiency, not the distributional consequences of those questions. So that’s where we’re going to concentrate our efforts.”

If students taking economics courses at the University of Rochester feel that they are missing out on other perspectives, Wolkoff suggested that the blame lies with them for choosing to study economics there in the first place. “We’re very forward about what we teach. We publicize what our courses are. I don’t blame the Chinese restaurant for serving me Chinese food instead of Italian food.”

Others, such as John Karl Scholz, the chair of the economics department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, took the position that it was acceptable for economics departments to present a single theory to students as long as critical thinking skills were being taught in other classes. “There are costs for what you spend your time on,” Scholz said. “It’s true that economics has a particular prism on the world. To spend a lot of time teaching other perspectives is to crowd other things out. Since presumably students are taking other classes in sociology and history and other disciplines, we don’t need to cover all the bases here.”

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