The Handbook for Economics Lecturers

3.3 Evaluation of the heterodox module approach

When one is trying to present a summary of heterodox microeconomic concepts, drawing on extensive literatures, not everything can be included. In terms of omission, the list of heterodox concepts not covered would be potentially long but the module as shown attempts to provide an overview and introduction. It also aims to achieve cognitive capacities, such as the ability to think about an issue from different angles. This anticipates the parallel perspectives approach discussed in section 4. Obviously, given the nature of the module, compared to standard introductions, it is very different. Some tutors may be concerned that a heterodox module deviates too far from the Economics Benchmarking Statement and that concern is examined in Figure 8.

Figure 8: Heterodox modules in relation to the Economics Benchmarking Statement

In some significant ways, the heterodox module differs from the description of Economics in the Benchmarking Statement. Concepts identified as core theory may be omitted or even rejected. Take, for example, the position that economics is concerned with choice under scarcity (Robbins, 1932). From a heterodox perspective, that view is problematic, for several reasons. Some heterodox economists question whether scarcity is applicable to contemporary capitalist economies (Galbraith, 1958). Others argue that where scarcity occurs, it has been created, rather than simply existing: capital is a good example (see Lee and Keen, 2004, fn. 21). Others accept absolute scarcity of such things as water, but doubt that the value of water is determined by its scarcity (Lee and Keen, p. 192). Others simply would argue that even if we acknowledge scarcity, that is not what economics is about (Knoedler and Underwood, 2003).

Clearly, several of the other core concepts listed there are de-emphasised, neglected, questioned, rejected or even omitted in Table 2. However, naturally, whichever ones are omitted, they are replaced by new ones. Thus, side B of Table 3 is easily converted from a set of principles into learning outcomes. In addition, though - and this theme should be clear throughout this chapter - learning outcomes are achieved in terms of student capacities and skills. Significantly, many of these are consistent with the Economics Benchmarks: abstraction, induction, deduction, analysis, quantification, design and framing - the identification of important variables - are all achievable in the module outlined in Table 2. Clearly, some of the conclusions reached about those skills - for example on the appropriate use of mathematical models - may be different from a heterodox viewpoint. However, in addition, skills of criticality, comparison and concrete, realistic thought may also be developed.

The above concerns also apply in different ways to the orthodox-plus and parallel perspectives approaches. In both, the emphasis will be slightly different to a standard module and potentially some standard material will be omitted or less time will be given to it. However, equally, the development of critical and comparative skills will be enhanced to compensate, as in the case of the heterodox module.

The benefits of teaching a heterodox module are to some extent very similar to those of teaching heterodox material per se:

  • The heterodox module structures laid out above offer opportunities to discuss methodological and historical questions.
  • They confront students with different ways of thinking of the world and about economics.
  • Students may consequently understand the orthodox material better, because they have been forced to question it, to examine objections to it, and to consider an alternative.

Additionally, teaching an entire module of heterodox material allows more depth and breadth of material to be achieved, and thus the benefits of teaching that material are amplified. Further:

  • The benefits of studying heterodox material are achieved at a programme level. For example, students have space to confront 'normative' questions usually confined to policy analysis or philosophy. Indeed, that is a feature of the heterodox approach.
  • Students are invited to question whether the heterodox approach is superior or inferior to - or perhaps just different from - the orthodox material they have been learning.
  • They have the opportunity to study an entire system of thought and attempt to employ it.
  • If heterodox theory is more realistic than orthodox, then students develop a useful applicable toolkit of concepts which cannot feasibly be learned in a brief one- or two-week treatment.