The Handbook for Economics Lecturers

4.4 Objections to the parallel perspectives approach

There are several objections offered to teaching heterodox economics. Space precludes a full discussion here, but some of these objections are worthy of mention. One is that heterodox economics is pointless and that students should merely learn orthodox economics. Hopefully the arguments in section 1 refute such claims. The other main objections are that:

  • It is too much to expect of students to cope with multiple perspectives as well as take in complex economic material.
  • Students will find competing perspectives approaches too difficult and unattractive per se.
  • Including heterodox material will reduce the intellectual depth of the economics programme.

The first two arguments rest on the belief that criticism and scepticism breed nihilism, and that students will learn nothing if they are taught to criticise. Even those who accept the need to criticise the orthodoxy claim that the basics need to be learned first. The danger of course is that once learned, the basics are impossible to question, and that the aims stated above of open-mindedness and critical thinking can be thwarted if students embrace the basics too vigorously. One way round this is to teach alternative basics from the beginning. One way to get students used to being critical is to immerse them in a programme in which criticism and comparison is endemic.

However, it is a genuine concern that students will be discouraged if they see only fallibility of theories and alternatives and see no hope of reaching answers. Earl (2000) shows that an instructor who tries to push students too quickly will come unstuck and lose them. As Earl notes, the comparative or relativistic way of thinking does not occur overnight: nor can students be dragged to that level. Most start off as what Earl calls 'dualistic', i.e. right and wrong, thinkers: one theory must be the whole Truth, or it is useless. A tutor should be able to demonstrate their expertise by delivering the Truth to students. It is difficult for students to move from dualistic to relativistic thinking. Even when students are at higher levels of thinking in their everyday life, for instance when discussing football, music or other aspects of popular culture, they can revert to lower levels in academic life, leading them to demand 'right' answers and to feel uncomfortable answering anything other than narrow technical questions.

As Earl (2000) notes, it is imperative to communicate to the students early on - and to repeat the message - what you as a lecturer are trying to do. This can also be achieved through the design of assessment. As outlined below, essays of increasing length and significance in terms of marks can ease students into the habit of thinking critically and openly. A stress on the need to make an argument and develop a position can be similarly beneficial. Therefore, when teaching parallel perspectives in particular, it is essential that students are treated carefully. Attempts to force students into thinking comparatively, etc. too quickly can lead to them attempting to escape from the process, or taking easy options.

On the question of intellectual depth, the arguments of section 1 should show that teaching parallel perspectives may actually increase intellectual standards. The students' ability to think critically and open-mindedly is a crucial intellectual capacity. As Earl notes too, students' ethical capacities may also increase, as they learn to show respect for other views yet find ways to criticise them and make tentative commitments to a position (see also Barone, 1991). Barone also notes that when heterodox modules and contending perspectives were introduced into the curriculum at Dickinson College, USA, the 'neoclassical' content was strengthened: technical subjects, such as quantitative methods and applied calculus, were made compulsory for economics students.

In short, there appear to be many barriers to teaching a pluralist approach. However, as Earl (2000: 23) notes: 'Most academic economists do not try to find out whether all these barriers really exist and are insuperable; they simply take them for granted.' This section has demonstrated that in fact the barriers can be overcome if lecturers are prepared to try. Further, there may be many benefits to students of doing so.