The Handbook for Economics Lecturers

2.3 Evaluation of the 'orthodox-plus' approach

  • A critical examination of assumptions is encouraged. As Sutton (2000) notes, assumptions are something which students question (perhaps naturally) but the discussion of which is often postponed - often indefinitely. Referring to questions raised by students about (or against) the practice of reducing complex human actors to simplified mathematical representations of rational maximisers, Sutton (p. xv) claims: 'By the time that students have advanced a couple of years into their studies, both these questions are forgotten. Those students who remain troubled by them have quit the field; those who remain are socialised and no longer ask about such things. Yet these are deep questions, which cut to the heart of the subject.' This situation is problematic from a pedagogical point of view.
  • A discussion of the role of assumptions in economics is provoked. This is not 'orthodoxy-bashing': on the contrary, a discussion of the realism of assumptions leads naturally into one about their role and possibly a justification for unrealistic assumptions. That in turn leads to a consideration of models and a greater understanding of how they work and how to think about them. That can be vitally important in understanding economics and in offsetting the apathy many students feel when studying economics.
  • Third, the heterodox conception offers an alternative for students to consider. Again, that should be done critically. There are two principal benefits of doing this. First, students are introduced to ideas which have played a formative role in the history of economic thought. Second, the heterodox views are a basis for comparison and examination of orthodox theory, and in line with variation theory cited earlier they provide a background for crystallising the orthodox views. This is the value-added of using the heterodox concept to examine the orthodox - compared with, say, simply drawing on the conclusions of experimental economics, as Becker (2004) suggests.