New economics

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Sir, OECD ministers were recently wondering about the quality and relevance of teaching, and your latest OECD Observer (No 225) takes up the matter rather thoroughly. The problem is of special interest as far as economics is concerned.

A student movement for the reform of economics teaching started in France in May 2000 and has since spread throughout the world, particularly to Spain, the United Kingdom and the United States. The issues raised by the students focus mainly on the irrelevance of under-graduate and graduate economics teaching for understanding real economic problems. The open letter launched in June 2000 (see website) shows how “imaginary worlds” are imposed on the students. This we have called “autism”, and it has led to the creation of the “post-autistic movement”. We seek change in three main aspects of economics teaching.

First, the courses are usually devoid of any empirical data, be it statistics, case studies, historical illustrations or institutional considerations. The core of the course is made up of purely mathematical models. These models are called “evidence”. This is the second point: students do not criticise the use of mathematics as a tool for understanding, but they do object to the mathematics becoming an end in itself. Unfortunately, this is frequently the case as cute models are cut off from real world concerns and taught as an independent worldview. Thirdly, there is no room left for theoretical and methodological pluralism. This is a shame when one considers the many controversies that occur in economics, and their social and political importance.

The picture I describe might seem exaggerated, and it is true that situations can vary across different universities and countries. Still, the problems raised above are present to some extent almost everywhere, since economics curricula have been standardised all over the world, mainly following the US model.

The debate has now been launched among economics teachers and those responsible for teaching the discipline. Specifically, in France the education minister, Jack Lang, has commissioned a report on the teaching of economics. The report is to be published by the end of June 2001. The report should present new recommendations for improving the economics curriculum.

The students themselves have made some proposals. First, the courses in economic theory should be organised around real problems, like development, and not merely based on macro or micro models that are largely taught for their own sake. At the very least, the application of economic theories should be carefully dealt with, notably how theory can influence economic policies. Second, the curriculum should include more descriptive economics, such as economic history, economic geography and the study of national and international institutions. This does not mean we are against theory but rather in favour of making the students aware of the empirical context of economic phenomena. Thirdly, the history of economic theories and a course in moral and political philosophy should foster a better understanding of the problems at stake in modern economics.

These proposals are just one way of making economics teaching more relevant to real world issues. They are issues which have to be addressed carefully. Today’s global problems, like employment, migration, poverty and resource depletion are far too pressing for economics teaching to remain lost in its dreamworld.

Yours sincerely

Iona Marinescu, Paris

French Post-Autistic Movement

©OECD Observer No 226/227, Summer 2001 

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