Like ‘heterodox’, ‘pluralism’ is a problematic term. At a basic level it refers to the existence of alternatives. However, there is an array of possible ways to practise that. Garnett and Mearman (2011) discuss how pluralism has evolved. Pluralism can operate at various levels: within the same theoretical framework, debating evidence; using different theoretical frameworks; deploying different methodological approaches; or making different assumptions about the world (ontological) or about knowledge (epistemological). For the student and the teacher, these different options present different challenges.
Another dimension of pluralism is the way in which the alternatives interact, if at all. It is possible to create ‘ghettos’ into which alternatives are pushed: for example, a single optional module in Marxism within a programme which otherwise shuns Marx. This is a weak form of pluralism, one which merely tolerates the existence of the alternative. A programme in which a strand of heterodox modules is allowed, but again with little engagement between those modules and the core also falls into this category.
A stronger, more assertive form of pluralism is one in which different perspectives are considered in tandem, perhaps in contention with each other. The two perspectives can be variants of orthodox thought: for instance neo-classical versus behavioural treatments of microeconomics. However, they can also be orthodox versus heterodox. A thoroughgoing ‘contending perspectives’ module would contrast the perspectives throughout, including in the assessment scheme.
Whether pluralism occurs, and the form it takes, will depend on several factors. One is the institutional constraints faced by the instructor. The suggestions in this chapter and in the accompanying booklet reflect the different realities teachers face. It may be possible to design a complete pluralist programme, but often it is not. Even in these cases, dogged teachers can get approval for a heterodox or pluralist module within a conventional programme. However, sometimes this is not possible, and the only option open is to insert heterodox material into an orthodox module. And of course, in some cases, even this is not possible. Thus institutional context is crucial.
However, mindset is also important. To get the most out of a pluralist approach, one must be clear about the objectives of doing so. Similarly, a pluralist approach involves setting aside to some extent one’s own beliefs about what is correct. It involves giving a fair hearing to material which the teacher ultimately believes is wrong: heterodox teachers know this very well! It also involves engaging with material that is more unfamiliar, and thus it takes time – time which is otherwise used for publishing papers necessary for career survival. For these reasons, teaching heterodox economics and pluralism are challenging.
Furthermore, it should be clear that merely teaching heterodox economics is not synonymous with pluralism. In Figure 1, point 7 claimed that pluralism is a principle of heterodox economics. However, heterodox teachers can be non-pluralist in their approach, if they choose to be. Clearly, as well, orthodox teachers can be pluralist, if they choose to be. One of the reasons to do so is to consider the benefits of pluralist teaching.