Challenging the Economics Curriculum: the Quiet Revolution in Community Education

by Matthew Watson, Professor of Political Economy

A fascinating thought-piece by Aditya Chakrabortty appeared in The Guardian last week.  It asked about the role of market-conforming economics models in the build-up to the global financial crisis and began to chart the gathering dissent of economics students to the fact that these models are all they seem to be taught.  My interest was stirred by Chakrabortty’s laudable insistence that the economics curriculum is a matter worthy of greater political debate.

Rebellion has been in the air for some time without ever having really captured the attention of the news media.  In fact, the most radically plural approach to economics teaching has emerged from outside the university sector, through the opening up of new sites of community education.  This is a movement lacking normal network features of coordination and hierarchy, and it is based almost entirely on the voluntary labour of concerned citizens.  If you did not know what to look for you could be excused for having missed it.

Careful internet searches, however, produce plentiful evidence of a quiet revolution taking shape from below.  Advertisements around the country invite people to free community education events designed to demystify some of the largest economic issues of our day.  Why are economic rewards distributed more unevenly today than at any previous time?  What role does welfare play in sustaining functioning societies?  Why has the banking sector escaped relatively unscathed from its own self-induced crisis?  In multiple public spaces near you, groups of concerned citizens now meet on a frequent basis to discuss these and other pressing matters.

In the process, they are actively involved in reclaiming knowledge of the economy from some of the more esoteric principles of academic economics.  Group participants are learning more about their own lives and about how their lives are connected to other people’s through the economic decisions they make.  The very notion of an economic system consequently gets liberated from orthodox demand-and-supply diagrams and becomes something that people actually feel they are living in their own experiences.

This inclusive principle is amply illustrated even in the name of the People’s Political Economy initiative recently established in Oxford.  It is one of many similar community education programmes, having started from its founders’ commitment that the economics of the current crisis is simultaneously the economics of everyday fears about how to make ends meet when the fabric of community life begins to be eroded.  Those fears continue to be a very live part of everyday experiences of the economy, but they find disappointingly few moments of expression within the economics curriculum.  Community education initiatives provide exciting alternatives where such moments abound.

Within the university sector, we can see a similar yearning for a new approach.  Economics students throughout the UK might not yet be following their Manchester counterparts in the most obviously newsworthy tactic of lobbying directly for a more diverse syllabus.  But this does not mean that they have not already convinced themselves to think more critically about what they are taught and, more importantly, what they are not.  This all follows the pattern of challenge set by the famous walkout that occurred in November 2011 from the introductory economics class at Harvard University taught by Gregory Mankiw, the author of the leading mainstream textbook.

Dissenters amongst the student body have already found a voice, then, and current circumstances make it difficult to imagine them becoming either less numerous or less vocal.  Their concerns, after all, are hardly the heady stuff that has animated student protest in the past: 2013 is not the new 1968.  They are making polite requests for incremental curriculum redesign which might expose students to more than one way to think about their world.

What do we want?

‘Enhanced pedagogical diversity, please.’

When do we want it?

‘At your convenience is fine.’

What the dissenting students are asking for has already been suggested by a number of relatively conservative commissions set up to recommend changes to the economics curriculum.  A little bit of pluralism – whether of worldview, theory or method – is the order of the day.  Everyone who has asked questions about the economics curriculum with an open mind seems to agree about that.

It will be fascinating to see in future whether the teaching of economics in universities and in community education programmes continues to exist as if in parallel dimensions.  Only time will tell whether a rapprochement takes place that allows economics students to choose between multiple ways of viewing the world.

Matthew Watson is a Professor of Political Economy in the Department of Politics and International Studies, University of Warwick.

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