by Jean Gadrey, Professor at the University of Lille 1
Economic History and Economics
Humility in Economics
Garbage disposal and the nuclear arms race
How the economists got it wrong
Back to reality
Due to the initiative of students, a debate has finally been launched on the reasons of the deep crisis which the teaching of economics is now facing. This crisis is manifest in the sharp decrease in the number of students who have chosen this course over recent years. Indeed, economics is not the only course facing such a crisis. It is also the case of so-called " hard " sciences (maths, chemistry, physics).
The success of all these subjects from the 1960s to the 1980s, when they experienced a tremendous growth, was explained by the belief in their decisive contribution to social progress and well-being. Contemporary economics is also a by-product of successful fordism, a science that one used to rely on for its ability to master complex phenomena, as in physics. A science which was supposed to help understand the world we live in and to organise it for the profit of all.
This belief is less and less common
Unemployment, persisting inequalities, social exclusion, violence and the generalised lack of confidence in politics and in economic policies in particular have marked our ways of thinking. Some of the academic economists have reacted by refusing the idea that there was a crisis in the content and meaning of economics as it is taught and practised. For some, the diminishing number of students in economics is simply not a problem. As long as the best stay. This will give teachers more time for research. For others, it is only a problem of teaching methods : the contents are not at stake, it is the way there are presented. They should be introduced more progressively, with more concrete examples. One would thus avoid the mistaken idea of economics as a science which endlessly runs irrelevant little models.
These solutions will not prove helpful. What students feel when they enter university after having been taught economics and social sciences in the lycee is that they are discovering pointless courses. In particular, what is being taught does not help them to understand great current social issues. And it is even not possible to tell them honestly that this will prove helpful later on, that it is only an indirect way, hard but necessary towards the understanding of the world. The core of economics teaching during the first university years is the microeconomics-macroeconomics couple, both under neoclassical influence, along with the mathematical tools judged necessary to present these models. And this package does not so much offer a simplified picture of the real world as an approximate one. It leads the student into imaginary worlds of utility functions or production functions completely detached from reality, but deeply influenced by conservative ideology.
Mathematical formalisation is not at stake as such. It is the hypotheses and foundations of the analysis which are pointless, and which lead to an excessive use of formalisation.
This explains why lessons do not make room for facts : most of the time, theory is simply unable to bear any confrontation to reality. When it presents examples, it is only in the form of extreme situations, either invented or falsely concrete. The solution to the current crisis of public discontent and disaffection for economics will only be found when we take into account what Herbert Simon, economics Nobel Prize laureate, wrote : If it [standard microeconomics] is wrong, why not throw it away ? Yes, I am throwing it away. I think the textbooks are a scandal. I think to expose young impressionable minds to this scholastic exercise as though it said something about the real world, is a scandal. This sentence, recalled in a recent manifesto written by the students, indicates where we ought to go.
Most neoclassical microeconomics should only be taught in the course presenting the history of economic theories, along with, say, the Marxist theory of " labour-value ".
So it should then be removed from the first years. A substantial part of formalised macroeconomics should experience the same fate. The maths syllabus in the first two years would then be proportionally reduced. Economics teaching should be based on the important questions that worry people, through a double confrontation.
First, a comprehensive confrontation between competing theories, with as little formalisation as possible in their presentation. Second, these theories should be presented in their context, i.e. in a way that would permit the test of their relevance when confronted to statistics, historical analysis and social and institutional realities which are the framework of " economic mechanisms ".
Alternative textbooks should be produced, addressing the question of the meaning of economics that students ask themselves, but that concern every citizen. Such textbooks would be the continuation of these used in the lycees in social sciences and economics courses, though with deeper analysis.
It is very unlikely that the profession will accept such changes. It has built itself on other bases, and these bases have become beliefs, institutions, careers, places of power. This is why private initiatives by other groups involved (students, lycee teachers, the economic press, political parties who do not blindly trust mainstream economics) are the only hope for preventing suicidal attitudes and backing the minority of economists who still believe that their subject can be meaningful, and that it can be used in the public debate.