Mainstream economists on the defensive

Original Reporting | By Mike Alberti |

To that end, the Yale undergraduate program offers students the opportunity to take courses such as Debating Globalization, Debates within Macroeconomics, Economics of Natural Resources, and Poverty under Postindustrial Capitalism, which introduce students to a broader variety of perspectives and methodological techniques than standard “core” classes.

whatever happened to
the History of economic thought?

As Remapping Debate has previously reported, one of the primary criticisms leveled by advocates for pluralism is that the teaching of economics is becoming increasingly ahistorical as courses on economic history and the history of economic thought, once a standard part of most curricula, have disappeared.

Critics see this shift as worrisome, arguing that students frequently get the impression that the economy can be understood through set of principles that are applicable regardless of time and circumstance (in other words, principles that are objectively “true” independent of the social and historical context out of which they emerged).

Several mainstream economists agreed that the loss of those courses was unfortunate, with Ben Polak of Yale calling it “a tragedy.”

The primary reason for not offering those courses, they said, was a function of limitations in how most faculty members have been educated: because so few economists get a historical education in graduate school, there are few professors who are available to teach those courses.

Nevertheless, several department chairs said that they were currently making an effort to find faculty with historical training and bring those courses back.

Yale also offers several courses in American and international economic history, which Polak said serve the important function of giving students a sense of the social and historical context in which economic systems have changed over time (see sidebar).

Valerie Ramey, chair of the economics department at the University of California San Diego, also said that offering a diversity of perspectives was valuable.

“I think students would be better off if we talked more about those other viewpoints,” she said.

Ramey and Polak also agreed with critics that economics, both as a discipline and as it is taught to undergraduates, has become too focused on the methodology of mathematical modeling, at the expense of the kind of empirical observation that characterizes the approach of heterodox schools of thought.

“It’s enormously important that we teach students basic facts about the economy,” Polak said. “Students need to be given real empirical examples and be looking at data in addition to learning the models. I think we’ve got away from that a bit.”

Ramey agreed. “I like rigor, but I don’t like the fact that by focusing so much on the math, we’re leaving out a whole range of problems that can’t be solved using math.”

“We’re leaving out the essence, the big questions,” she continued.

“It’s like the drunk who is looking for his keys under the streetlight instead of where he lost them because ‘that’s where the light is.’”


“I guess I don’t know enough”

When asked why she does not teach alternative perspectives in her courses if she sees the value in doing so, Ramey said, “Because I was never taught them.”

That response was indicative of a broader trend in the interviews with mainstream economists. Even many of the economists who expressed a resistance to teaching the other schools of thought, or questioned their validity, admitted that they were personally unfamiliar with them.

Gene Grossman of Princeton, for example, said that while he believed that “an exposure to a range of views and subjects is obviously good for students,” when asked why he did not believe there was value in teaching the other schools of economic thought, he answered that “I’m not sure I understand what those approaches amount to. Maybe that’s a short-coming of myself.”

When asked why she does not teach alternative perspectives in her courses if she sees the value in doing so, Valerie Ramey of UCSD said, “Because I was never taught them.”

Similarly, John Siegfried of Vanderbilt and the AEA said that, to the best of his knowledge, the differences between the other perspectives amounted to little more than “political differences.” When pressed, he said, “I guess I don’t know enough about what the differences are.”

And Harald Uhlig of the University of Chicago said that he has not seen anything in the other schools of thought that “I think our models can’t handle.”

Ramey suggested that a lack of knowledge of the other perspectives among economists was one of the greatest barriers to reforming the curriculum. “If you weren’t taught that stuff in graduate school,” she said, “it takes a lot of time and work to figure out what they’re saying so that you can teach it to students. That’s probably part of the reason it falls to the bottom of the priority heap.”

When it was suggested to mainstream economists that their lack of knowledge of perspectives beyond neoclassical economics might itself be evidence that the economics curriculum had become too narrow, some conceded the point.

“I do think we need to be careful,” Siegfried said. “There’s certainly a danger of becoming isolated. It would probably be beneficial to students if we had a more diverse curriculum than we do now.”


A different philosophy of education

Others, however, stressed a different point.

“I think there’s value to having a coherence in a discipline,” Grossman said. “I have no complaints or concerns if our philosophy department wants to teach a philosophical approach to economics using more descriptive methods. I don’t think that’s something we can do well.”

Michael Salemi, the chair of the economics department at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said, “Simply from the point of view of pedagogy, the most important thing is that you try to teach fewer topics that hang together and provide a cohesive whole” because “that’s the only way that students learn.”

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