Remarkably, economics teaching has become newsworthy. In the UK, for example, BBC Radio 4 and The Guardian have charted the debate over the design of economics curricula.This wide interest is probably driven by economic events - principally the Global Financial Crisis - but also concerns about inter alia austerity policy, the Eurozone, and climate change. Films such as Inside Job, The Big Short and Boom Bust Boom have sparked curiosity about economics.
Employers, too, have complained that economics curricula may not prepare students for careers as economists (or elsewhere). In a survey commissioned by the Economics Network, O’Doherty et al (2007) report, surprisingly, that employers find that graduates could not apply theory to the real world, solve complex problems or be objective. Most strikingly, employers claimed that economics graduates could not engage in abstraction: only 41.7% of graduates were judged as being excellent or strong at this. This concern about employability, among others, led some to ask ‘what’s the use of economics?’ (see Coyle, 2012).
The public and media interest builds on concerns from within the economics community itself. Even from within the ‘mainstream’ of economics, it was recognised that the remarkable uniformity across undergraduate economics programmes did not reflect the state of contemporary economics. Becker (2004) lamented that the undergraduate curriculum had lagged economic research. The CORE Project is a major response to this failure. CORE includes newer topics, principally game theory and behavioural economics. CORE also responds to calls for greater awareness of the ‘real world’ by presenting students with data. Its proponents believe that in doing this, CORE also helps students develop critical thinking, by teaching them to demand evidence to settle questions. This approach also introduces greater uncertainty, which may also serve to answer critics who allege that economics is guilty of hubris (Fourcade, et al, 2015).
Within economics there has also been an appeal for greater pluralism in economics teaching. This call has sometimes come from heretical mainstreamers or experts in economic methodology: for example Hodgson, et al (1992) did so in the American Economic Review. Further there is a constituency of economists who may regard themselves as ‘heterodox’, who campaign for pluralism; but moreover argue that space in the curriculum must be allowed for alternative economics traditions inter alia Marxism, Institutionalism (associated with the work of Veblen), Post Keynesianism, and Feminist economics. These economists complain that mainstream economics has become intolerant of difference and focused on key economic concepts (such as methodological individualism and equilibrium) or methods (mathematical modelling and econometrics) to the exclusion of others (Lawson 2013).
These economists’ calls for pluralism have been more pronounced recently, and embodied in a number of initiatives; inter alia, a special issue on pluralism in the IREE (2009) and the formation of Reteaching Economics, a group of early career scholars campaigning for greater pluralism. Robert Skidelsky has been commissioned by INET to develop a pair of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) – one on history and philosophy of economics, another on ‘unsettled questions’ – material often omitted from conventional programmes. These add to the range of courses delivering heterodoxy and pluralism around the world.
Another driver of these new programmes is student demands for greater pluralism. These calls are not new. Figure 1 below reports responses from an Economics Network student survey from 2002; these were contemporaneous with calls from the Post-Autistic Economics Network (see Fullbrook, 2003) for greater pluralism of theory and method. Recently, though, these calls have been amplified greatly by such groups as the International Student Initiative for Pluralism in Economics, the Post-Crash Economics Society, and Rethinking Economics. Earle, et al (2016) solidify these calls within an overarching critique of economics.
Figure 1: Undergraduate students who want a more heterodox experience
- ‘The basic problem is that the vast majority of economics in [the course] is orthodox/mainstream. Students aren't offered alternative approaches developed by Post-Keynesians, institutionalists and Marxists. But the problem seems to be the same elsewhere: 95 per cent of the economics taught in higher education institutions is mainstream.’
- ‘More of historical account of the development ideas I believe would be beneficial to understanding why we believe the ideas we do today, what was wrong (why they failed/are no longer used) with ideas of yesterday, e.g. going from the Gold Standard to Keynesianism to Thatcherism to today.’
- ‘I would like to see more empirical evidence used in lectures to support or maybe contradict the economic models. This would help relate what can be some very abstract ideas to the real world. The few times this has happened I have found it very interesting.’
- ‘More focus on non-orthodox economics rather than just neo-classical to give a broader perspective.’
Students’ responses to the question: Identify one or two aspects of your degree course that could be improved and say why (Economics LTSN Student Survey Report 2002).
In the light of this critique this chapter examines the rationale and scope for teaching heterodox economics, and pluralism. We now consider working definitions of heterodox economics and pluralism, a summary of the arguments for teaching them, and an introduction to strategies for doing so.Back to top
1.1 What is ‘heterodox economics’?
‘Heterodox economics’ is a problematic term, which is continually debated (cf. Mearman, 2012). It can mean simply ‘non-orthodox’ but that definition is problematic in two ways. Principally, it begs the further question of whether there is an identifiable orthodoxy; and if so, what that is. For some economists, ‘orthodox’ remains associated with the neo-classical economics. Arnsperger and Varoufakis (2006) define that in terms of three methodological meta-axioms: individualism, instrumentalism, and equilibriation. Lawson (2013) defines neo-classical economics in terms of an adherence to a particular technical apparatus.
However, others hold that equating neo-classical and mainstream economics is incorrect. First, the term ‘neo-classical economics’ can mean a set of meta-theoretical principles or methods – as is the case in this chapter; however, it can also refer to a specific historical period in economics. Second, to equate neoclassical and mainstream ignores many recent developments in economic research (Colander, Holt and Rosser, 2004). Unfortunately, despite CORE, many of these theoretical developments still have not filtered into undergraduate teaching. As a result, ‘orthodox’ teaching still largely reflects neo-classical economics. Hence, in this chapter, the term ‘orthodox’ refers to the essentially neo-classical material present in the vast majority of undergraduate economics curricula. The term ‘mainstream’ refers to research.
The second problem of defining heterodox economics as ‘non-orthodox’ is that it downplays both the heritage and current potency of heterodox theories: they are both a) based in a tradition of alternative theoretical systems, such as those constructed by Marx, Keynes, Veblen, Hayek and Schumpeter and b) living traditions practised in research and other communities, with findings published in journals. Heterodox theories are considerably more than reactions to orthodox theories. For the purpose of this chapter, heterodox means neither simply ‘non-orthodox’ nor ‘non-neoclassical’. Nor is it defined merely in terms of new versus old, i.e. new economic research versus old textbook theory. Rather, it constitutes a set of key characteristics found in the writings of heterodox economists. A summary of these is presented in Figure 2.
Figure 2: A non-exhaustive series of heterodox principles
- Methodology (rather than just method) is important to understanding economics.
- Human actors are social and less than perfectly rational, driven by habits, routines, culture and tradition.
- While theories of the individual are useful, so are theories of aggregate or collective outcomes. Further, neither the individual nor the aggregate can be understood in isolation from the other. The micro/macro distinction may be invalid.
- Economic systems are complex, evolving and unpredictable – and consequently equilibrium models should be viewed sceptically.
- History and time are important (reflecting (4)).
- All economic theories are fallible and, reflecting (4), there is contemporary relevance of the history of thought to understanding economics.
- Pluralism, i.e. multiple perspectives, is advocated (following on from (4) and (6)).
- Formal mathematical and statistical methods should not be presumed to be superior. Other methods and data types are valuable.
- Facts and values are inseparable.
- Power is an important determinant of economic outcomes (cf. Ozanne, 2016).
Not every example of heterodox economics exemplifies every one of these characteristics. Austrian economics, for example, is weak on principle 10. Whilst some economists treat heterodox as a single body of theory (or try to create a single theory: Lavoie, 1992; Arestis, 1992; Shaikh, 2016), others treat it as a collection of theories (Garnett, 2005). Some argue for a coherence of heterodoxy at a methodological level or even in terms of the nature of reality as involving structures of deep causal mechanisms (Lawson, 1997, 2003) or complex adaptive systems (Potts, 2000). Figure 2 includes assumptions with epistemological and ontological standpoints that are widespread in heterodox literature (and therefore tending towards a potentially unifiable body of theory). Given the scale of these principles, students will only have very limited opportunities to understand the implications within the context of a single module. A more thoroughgoing approach would require a review of the experiences offered to students across a whole degree programme.
1.1.1 Method and history
Some points in Figure 2 merit further elaboration. Attention to methodology (1) and to the history of economic thought (5) are hallmarks of a heterodox approach. However, heterodox economists have argued that these two (arguably key) areas are neglected in standard treatments of economics.
As discussed below, the question of what a model is, how it is to be used, how it is to be evaluated, etc. are crucial for anyone wanting to understand economics; and indeed, are useful questions for anyone required to think abstractly. Accordingly, abstraction is a central activity in economics: what does it mean? How are we to think of ceteris paribus? In contrast to many standard treatments, a heterodox module would spend longer discussing those methodological issues and would not set them aside. Rather, they would be revisited repeatedly.
As Hodgson (2001) claims, ‘economics forgot history’. This could be true in two senses. It is too bold to claim that orthodox economics ignores methodology and history. However, history of thought is often confined to an optional specialist module. Even newer curricula, such as CORE, themselves only give cursory attention to history of thought (Morgan, et al, 2014). And yet, it has been recognised that understanding history is important (James, 2012). Thus, Hodgson could be correct in a second sense too: economic models removed historical time from analysis. It is significant that the new Skidelsky MOOC will be on the history and philosophy of economics.
Heterodox approaches tend to take history very seriously. Partly this is self-serving. By pointing to the fact that neo-classical economics was not always the only game in town and by examining critically how economics got to its current state, it creates space for heterodox economics. Nonetheless heterodox economics is not merely history of thought. Rather, it rests on the belief that theories cannot be understood outside their wider socio-historical context. The rise of the General Theory is a good example: it reflected past intellectual currents but also the background of economic instability and high unemployment. The struggle between Monetarists and Keynesians is inexplicable outside of its economic context of what was actually happening to inflation. Heterodox economics precludes an ahistorical approach to theorising and asserts that students should be introduced to this way of thinking.
1.1.2 Heterodox pedagogy?
Not surprisingly, there is no single heterodox approach to teaching and learning. However, heterodox economists have made several interventions in pedagogy; and identified several benefits of teaching heterodox economics. It would be inaccurate to say mainstream economists have not shown any concern for pedagogy. For example, Siegfried et al (1991) avow a Socratic approach aimed at independent learning. Forsythe (2010) advocates problem-based learning. However, orthodox pedagogy tends to be instrumental, i.e. directed at more effective learning of and/or training students in conventional economics. For example, Coyle and Wren-Lewis (2015) assert that economics is a vocational subject. In many cases, though, this instrumental orientation is often only implicit: this partly reflects that there are few institutional incentives for engaging in deep reflection about teaching.
Contributions from heterodox economics have more often been explicitly informed by other pedagogical principles. Another element of that is to problematize education per se. Bowles and Gintis (1976) analyse education in terms of its role within capitalism. Bridges and Hartmann (1975) note the hierarchal nature of teaching but also stress the problems facing women teachers in establishing their credibility in a masculinist system. They draw on feminist literature and on the radical pedagogy of Freire (1970). A radical or critical pedagogy is student-centred, focusing on emancipation of students via conscientisation, i.e. self-awareness of their own circumstances on their own terms. From the same tradition, Rose (2005) discusses various methods by which they encouraged the co-production of knowledge on their course, for instance via collaborative exercises, a contract grading system, group projects, and simulations. She cites hooks (1994) as an influence. Rose contrasts her approach with the ‘banking model’ of education, in which students are empty vessels to be filled by instructors. Similarly, Kramer (2007) advocates participatory learning: in this case, students were asked to construct an ideal US economy. Ford et al (2007), who also cite Vygotsky and Dewey as influences, provide another example of a constructivist approach, in which learning occurs through students’ constructing their own meanings, ‘scaffolded’ by their own experience, rather than simply reproducing others’ meanings.
These are just some examples of how heterodox economists have explicitly engaged with educational philosophy to design and evaluate their courses. Barone (1991) for example explicitly recognises the heterogeneity of students. Peterson and McGoldrick (2009) link service learning methods to the achievement of their educational goals. Several authors utilise educational psychology of Perry (1970) in their discussion: inter alia, Lapidus (2011), Earl (2000), and Barone (2011). Another strand of this work is around liberal pedagogy, which envisages education as a process of allowing students to develop into analytical, critical, autonomous thinkers. Several authors argue that teaching heterodox economics has clear educational benefits (see Figure 3 below). Many of these overlap with claims for the benefits of pluralism.Back to top
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.Back to top
1.3 Why teach heterodox economics and pluralism?
Some reasons for giving students opportunities to develop an understanding of the principles of heterodox economics, and for pluralism, are presented in Figure 3.
Figure 3: Reasons for giving students good opportunities for understanding the principles of heterodox economics and for teaching pluralistically
- In order to understand a model properly, it is important to know its limits. Further, by understanding heterodox principles will lead to a more informed understanding of ‘mainstream’ economics. For example, behaviouralism is part of the mainstream but it reflects heterodox principles. Hence students will understand the orthodox better if heterodox principles are also taught
- Heterodox principles exert an important influence on policy (see Ramsden, 2015).
- As the history of economic thought shows, today’s orthodoxy might be tomorrow’s heresy. Today’s heterodoxy could be tomorrow’s mainstream. Students should be prepared for the long run.
- By analogy with biodiversity, in a complex world economics should have more varieties if it is to survive.
- 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’. These desires are reinforced by disciplinary mechanisms such as so-called ‘research quality’ assessment.
- The complexity of the world and humans’ limited ability to understand it suggest that one perspective may not be sufficient (see Morgan, 2014). Thus, heterodox as well as orthodox economics should be taught.
- To be effective, economists need a ‘bigger toolbox’ (Nelson, 2011). Pluralism may aid skill formation and therefore make graduates more employable (O’Donnell, 2009).
- Teachers as well as students learn and gain from teaching different perspectives (Warnecke, 2009).
- 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 (Clarke and Mearman, 2003; PCES, 2014). These faculties are, according to Bridges (1992), the mark of an educated mind.
- A pluralist thinking style is the most effective single factor distinguishing people who reliably predict future events (Tetlock 2005).
The above arguments are now well-established and have been buttressed by recent literature. A significant strand of new literature has gathered evidence to suggest that teaching heterodox economics and pluralism have benefits (see Garnett and Mearman, 2011). This evidence draws on a variety of approaches, including quantitative but also qualitative and mixed methodologies. There are still relatively few standard experimental studies, and no randomised controlled trials (RCTs) of which I am aware. This will disturb some readers. However, the absence of RCT evidence reflects two factors. First, it is often not possible to construct these trials, particularly in contexts in which an instructor is acting in isolation. Second, there are a number of objections to RCTs in an educational context (Mearman, 2014); hence, single-group studies relying on student (or alumni) performance, feedback and other reflective devices may be all that is available, and may in any case be preferable.
An early evaluation of pluralist teaching by Barone (1991) claimed that his 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. A follow-up study (Barone, 2011) made several similar claims, whilst acknowledging that in his context, pluralism had not been embedded sufficiently deeply to be most effective.
It is not hard to find reports of students responding positively to pluralist teaching. Warnecke (2009) reports greater student enthusiasm and highly positive student feedback. Mearman, et al (2011) aver that students on pluralist courses are more engaged and more content. Harvey (2011) reports (based on surveys of students on several runs of a pluralist module) that his students were not confused by pluralism, and rather, left their course more enthusiastic and more confident. However, he warns that his students did show some evidence of being influenced by the tutor’s biases.
Mearman et al (2011) also provide qualitative evidence that pluralism increases critical thinking skills; and that stronger contrasts (i.e. between mainstream and heterodox, rather than merely within the mainstream) may increase this benefit. Resnick and Wolff (2011) claim their students were better educated and better equipped to engage with other disciplines, having done a pluralist course which focused on philosophical entry points of different economic perspectives. Cooper and Ramey (2014) report survey evidence from alumni (over a ten-year period) that shows that their pluralist education helped them develop key attributes, including problem-solving. O’Donnell (2009) also provides evidence that pluralist courses aid skill development. Amin and Haneef’s (2011) tracer studies showed that their graduates developed professional competence and ethical awareness.
Tetlock (2005) reports on a twenty-year study in which experts from government, academia, journalism, and other fields made concrete predictions about events at least a year in advance. Each prediction involved assigning probabilities to sets of three outcomes (increase, decrease, or stay roughly the same) for measures such as a currency exchange rate, GDP growth, or a government deficit. Over two eventful decades, hundreds of participants generated 28,000 predictions. There are multiple ways to calculate a score, but by almost any measure the human predictors all fared worse than very simple algorithms. There was no difference in accuracy between experts from the political right or left, but there was a profound difference due to cognitive style. The experts who held to one specific predictive approach—anything from free-market to Marxist—were the most wildly inaccurate. The best predictors were those who considered multiple frameworks in parallel, or who moderated the predictions from one approach by considering that other factors might alter the outcome.
This nascent literature on evidence supports the theoretical arguments for pluralism. It is hamstrung somewhat by the nature of the object of enquiry, and by ethical concerns about experimentation. Both of these aspects reduce the feasibility and desirability of RCTs. Further, direct assessments of abilities such as critical thinking tend to be rather cumbersome and disruptive to the teaching process, and for this reason are avoided. That does limit the evidential base for pluralism. However, the studies cited demonstrate evaluations which are theoretically-informed, rich, and hence valuable.
1.3.1 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
- ‘I like a mixture so you can get a feeling from both sides of an argument.’
- ‘[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.’
- ‘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.’
- ‘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.’
- ‘I learned how to write an argumentative paper.’
- ‘I learned to form more concrete opinions and argue them.’
- ‘The papers have improved my way of thinking about certain topics.’
- ‘[m]ost of my papers in high school did not want my opinion so it is nice to have an outlet for my thoughts.’
- ‘I feel I know my own opinions more’; ‘[m]y writing skills definitely improved as well as my thinking skills.’
- ‘[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. Similarly, Lapidus (2011) reports good feedback on two courses she taught as contending perspectives; but she also notes some negative comments conveying student confusion. For instance, in response to an exercise which problematised the reliability of official statistics, one student wrote: “...I can’t seem to relate the answer I want to give, to the terminology of [the textbook]. It’s almost like in my head I’m blabbing on and on...and it relates nothing to what I should’ve learned in [the textbook]” (Lapidus, 2011: 92-3). 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. Some also believe that their ability to construct arguments has improved.Back to top
1.4 Three strategies for teaching pluralistically via heterodox economics
There are three main strategies for incorporating pluralism via heterodox economics in a course or programme. These approaches are all pluralist, albeit to different extents. As outlined above, the different approaches may reflect tutor preferences, tutor resources, or institutional constraints. This chapter considers the three strategies, suggesting activities that can be used in such programmes. More detailed examples of each strategy appear in the companion booklet "Pluralism in the economics curriculum", with extracts from syllabuses.
1 Enriching an ‘orthodox’ module
This approach uses heterodox concepts to shed new light on orthodox concepts essentially following a standard textbook treatment augmented by heterodox material. This ‘orthodox-plus’ approach is probably the most common form of ‘heterodox’ module, given that most undergraduate teaching is orthodox and opportunities to teach exclusively heterodox material are limited. This approach is described in section 2.
2 A module that focuses on an alternative system of thought
For example, a module might aim to provide students with a rich understanding of the way of thinking found either in a specific strand of heterodox thought, such as Marxism, Post-Keynesianism; or in a synthesised heterodox approach to, say, microeconomics. These modules are rare in the UK and remain unusual in other countries, such as the USA. This approach is described in section 3.
3 Teaching orthodox and heterodox economics as ‘contending perspectives’
A series of topics of interest or theoretical concerns are taught first from one perspective, then from the other, allowing comparison. Barone (1991) describes an entire programme organised around this principle. The new programme at Greenwich is designed along these lines. This approach is described in section 4. Table 1 below shows contrasted ‘orthodox’ and heterodox concepts.
Option (1) is perhaps the most practical and the most commonly used. Option (2) means that justice can be done to heterodox ideas, but is often restricted to specialist, optional ‘ghetto’ modules, where the development of a critical understanding may be limited. This chapter argues that, pedagogically, option (3) is the most beneficial, because it is based on comparative, critical treatments of both orthodox and heterodox. Also, by committing to comparative treatment, the contending perspectives approach can prevent the confusion which can occur when students are faced with different perspectives only occasionally. However, it may mean that fewer topics are covered in a module.
 It should be noted that, technically, CORE is just one module: nothing per se precludes teaching history of thought alongside it.