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3. Teaching a heterodox module

3.1 Summary

As discussed above, exactly what comprises a heterodox module will depend on its level and the approach of the instructor. There are essentially three alternatives in constructing a heterodox module. One way is to try to teach a single heterodox approach, such as Post-Keynesianism or Marxism. In that case, considerable depth would be achieved. Most heterodox modules, such as those found via the Heterodox Economics Directory are of this type, as are many of the examples discussed in the curriculum booklet. In each case, consistent with heterodox principles, the module would begin with a discussion of the tradition’s methodology, and its place in the history of economic thought. Thereafter, the topics covered will depend on the perspective being considered. Different heterodox schools have had different concerns and thus their literatures are skewed towards those issues. Space precludes a full discussion of all of these options here. However, reasonable guides to content can be based on treatments of the approaches in any texts dedicated to them, history of economic thought texts and recent editions of journals devoted to the tradition.

The second way to teach a heterodox module is to draw on the diversity of heterodox perspectives. One way is to anticipate the contending perspectives approach discussed below and teach a series of topics, in each case considering a variety of heterodox perspectives. So, on successive topics of, say, methodology, the individual, firms and competition, the aggregate economy, the role of government and income distribution, one would consider the work of each of the heterodox perspectives chosen on those topics. In that way, the benefits of teaching heterodox material are achieved, as are the advantages of teaching multiple contending perspectives.

A third way is to attempt to teach a fairly unified heterodox perspective, not based around one perspective, but by combining elements of different heterodox traditions. The main benefit of this is that one chooses the heterodox school that deals best with specific topics. For example, if one wanted to deal with the question of money, one could examine a range of heterodox perspectives on it (for example, Lautzenheiser and Yasar (2005) discuss teaching money in Marx) but it may be equally useful to consider Keynes’ work, which is arguably the most important contribution available. One might also discuss the issue of ‘macroeconomics’ and use that as a reason to discuss the contribution of Keynes to economics.

Alternatively, one could use Keynes to talk about uncertainty, or even, at the introductory level, about markets. The Keynesian beauty contest, in which stock markets are compared to a particular type of newspaper competition, in which entrants are asked to pick the beauty contestant whom they think others will choose, is a good example. That story is a good one: it encourages examination of the notions of the market, its efficiency, its outcomes and the market as an institution, rather than as a quasi-natural phenomenon.

Similarly, one might focus institutionalism on consumer theory, Post-Keynesianism on distribution, and Austrian Economics on competition (and policy). There is also a rich heterodox literature on production. Smith on the division of labour, Marx on exploitation, Bowles and Gintis (1985) on work organisation, and Spencer (2009) on the nature of work are all excellent sources for discussing actual production processes. It is this third approach which will be discussed here. A more detailed example appears in the accompanying publication “Pluralism in the economics curriculum”.