The Handbook for Economics Lecturers

6.3 'Parallel perspectives' modules

A module on the Economics of Social Issues at Eastern Illinois University is discussed in Figure 14.

Figure 14: A Parallel perspectives module

The module begins with a discussion of alternative economic perspectives. The first topic considered is reasons why economists disagree. In discussing sources of disagreement, the module achieves several goals immediately: it establishes different bases for disagreement, such as logical coherence or evidence; it considers ideological bases for disagreement; and it suggests that disagreement is possible and perhaps desirable. The module then considers three competing perspectives: conservative, liberal and radical, which are then taught in parallel throughout. The choice of paradigms in this case reinforces the political economy feel of the module; however, in principle the paradigms chosen may be conventional economic schools of thought. The choice will depend on the student cohort.

The module then moves on to consider issues. It first considers whether agriculture should be protected or left open to free markets. This question was asked of American students, but given the Common Agricultural Policy and the welter of literature on it, translating the discussion to European students is easy. Choosing topics such as that one, or indeed, as the module goes on, consumer sovereignty, environmental issues, regulation, income distribution and welfare reform, engages students in a way which traditional theory-based teaching may not. More than that though, the parallel perspectives approach enlivens each topic by showing students that the issues are contested, and the many sides of the debate; and also that each side of the debate may have good points to make and some logical and/or evidential basis. But it also encourages students to identify different perspectives and to offer criticisms of them. That activity is encapsulated in the writing assignments used in the module. In those assignments (one per topic), students were expected to find a newspaper article on the specific topic and present a critique of it. That critique should include the identification of the writer's perspective; the recognition of the bases being used to make the argument; an examination of whether the writer interrogates counterarguments to his or her own; and the highlighting of emotive or persuasive language used by the writer. What the student presents is a sophisticated analysis of the writer's rhetoric. This is a clear benefit of the parallel perspectives approach.