The Handbook for Economics Lecturers

1.2 Why teach heterodoxy?

Some reasons for giving students opportunities to develop an understanding of the principles of heterodox economics are presented in Figure 3.

Figure 3: Reasons for giving students good opportunities for understanding the principles of heterodox economics

  1. Students will understand the orthodox better if heterodox principles are also taught.
  2. It is not possible to develop an informed understanding of 'mainstream' economics without understanding heterodox principles (e.g. behaviouralism is part of the mainstream but it reflects heterodox principles).
  3. Heterodox principles have exerted an important influence on policy.
  4. Students should be prepared for the long run. Today's orthodoxy might be tomorrow's heresy. Today's heterodoxy could be tomorrow's mainstream.
  5. An appreciation of heterodox traditions encourages greater understanding of the history of thought and thereby the heritage of concepts taught in the classroom.
  6. 'Integrating these (heterodox) theories into the economics curriculum will expand the domain of economics, including the relation of economics to other aspects of human life normally excluded from conventional economic analysis (e.g. culture)' (Barone, 1991: 18).
  7. The complexity of the world and humans' limited ability to understand it suggest that one perspective may not be sufficient (see various contributions in Salanti and Screpanti, 1997). Thus, heterodox as well as orthodox economics should be taught.
  8. Heterodox approaches are more realistic than orthodox ones, which makes them better for understanding real-world concerns.
  9. The dominance of orthodoxy (or indeed the mainstream) is not a reflection of the superiority of these ideas. It reflects social pragmatism, seeking to increase the esteem of the profession by conforming to a dominant political ideology (liberalism) and by adopting the methodology used in 'hard science' and the use of this criterion to raise the value within the discipline of a particular kind of sunk human capital through mechanisms such as the Research Assessment Exercise in the UK.
  10. By analogy with biodiversity, in a complex world economics should have more varieties if it is to survive.
  11. Drawing on the philosophy of education, Clarke and Mearman (2001, 2003) argue that theoretical concepts and methodological approaches from heterodoxy, either in general or from specific schools of thought such as Marxism, encourage the development of key cognitive skills as well as open-mindedness and tolerance. These faculties are, according to (Bridges, 1992) the mark of an educated mind; but additionally they may be transferable capacities useful and attractive to employers.

Currently, there is only sparse evidence on whether teaching heterodox economics can deliver the outcomes suggested in Figure 3. Barone (1991) makes several claims in his analysis of (his institution) Dickinson College's move towards contending perspectives. In terms of intellectual development, Barone claims that the college's students 'as a result of heterodox integration… moved from dualistic to relativistic to critical forms of thinking' (Barone, 1991: 22). He claims that students' understanding is enhanced by the exposure to a wide range of phenomena. Further, he claims, students are better prepared to engage in policy debates because they are used to dealing with multiple perspectives.

Barone acknowledges that he has no objective data on student performance on neoclassical material, but there was no noticeable fall off either. Indeed, Barone claims that performance may have improved: for example, the number of students going on to graduate study in (orthodox) economics increased after the curriculum change. Overall, Barone (1991: 21) says:

'Our students' response to heterodox economic theory has been overwhelmingly positive. They have found it both intellectually challenging and stimulating. There have been lively and healthy classroom discussions comparing and contrasting different perspectives. Students are developing a greater appreciation for the complexity of economic issues and problems. They are more critical and want to know how they are to choose among these contending perspectives. This, of course, has opened the door to a discussion of the nature of explanation and how to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of a theory. The different value orientation of each theory generates discussions of values and ethical issues and their relationship to theory.'

Thus, according to Barone, the experiment at his college managed to achieve the key aims of the approach: intellectual development, sophistication of argument, and understanding of economics and the economy.

A different case is also illustrative. Bucknell University, USA, has a tradition of teaching heterodox economics to undergraduates. Bucknell introduces heterodox theory at level 1, runs parallel streams of orthodox and heterodox modules at level 2, and offers a range of heterodox options at level 3. Economics is the second largest major on campus. Moreover, many students go on to postgraduate economics study. The Bucknell case suggests that heterodox content can aid student recruitment.

1.2.1 Student feedback

Module evaluations provide a routine source of information about students' experience of teaching. When the module evaluation gives students an opportunity for a free response the results are usually instructive. Figure 4 presents a selection of student comments in their written evaluations of a heterodox module taught by the author. These are indicative of possible outcomes of heterodox teaching and could be followed up by anyone interested in investigating the likelihood of these outcomes.

Figure 4: Examples of student feedback on their experience of heterodox economics teaching

  1. 'I like a mixture so you can get a feeling from both sides of an argument.'
  2. '[o]rthodox is easier to learn because heterodox tries to incorporate too many outside factors. I like different opinions, though, so hearing both sides is good.'
  3. 'I think to begin the [module] comparing overtly is very difficult but it is much better to know the facts like that. I feel more informed.'
  4. 'Towards the end I feel my paper was better and I was able to have better opinions on the topics and more able to put my thoughts together.'
  5. 'I learned how to write an argumentative paper.'
  6. 'I learned to form more concrete opinions and argue them.'
  7. 'The papers have improved my way of thinking about certain topics.'
  8. '[m]ost of my papers in high school did not want my opinion so it is nice to have an outlet for my thoughts.'
  9. 'I feel I know my own opinions more'; '[m]y writing skills definitely improved as well as my thinking skills.'
  10. '[t]he papers were my favourite part of the class. I actually told my mom that the two papers you had us write made me think the most out of any papers I have ever had to write.'

There is evidence here of the challenge posed to students. One student complains that the heterodox approach was too open. Another cites the difficulty that is inherent in contrasting theoretical perspectives. These comments reflect Earl's (2000) concerns, that comparative analysis at the beginning of a module is difficult for some students. However, challenge can also be seen as a good thing, driving students towards higher levels of achievement, particularly in their critical thinking. This is apparent in the frequent reference to argument and argumentation. A number of students remark that hearing two sides of an argument is beneficial. A number of students also believe that their ability to construct arguments has improved.