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3 July 2000

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July 2001
Economistes sans frontières

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1 December 2006
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La Tribune

Why a reform of the teaching in economics is inevitable

All the people concerned agree with the observation: the university discipline "economics" is in crisis. Clues are numerous (see Alternatives Economiques, issue 173, October 1999): a drop in the number of students more pronounced than in all the other university fields, difficulties in entering the labor market (18% of students who completed their university education in 1994 were unemployed three years later, as opposed to 8% of students in management and 12% of all branches put together), and an endemic dissatisfaction among students. A debate resolutely has to be launched on this subject. This is the sense of our initiative: the "open letter from students in economics to the persons responsible for the teaching of this discipline", which the press recently mentioned (see Le Monde, June 21st, 2000, and our website: http://www.autisme-economie.org).
How does one explain this dissatisfaction? We think it is the product of two drifts generally observed within the teaching of economics, which are tightly linked together.

Confronting theories with facts

The first one is that teaching too often invites the student to discover only imaginary worlds, whose relation to economic reality remains mysterious and unfortunately unjustified. Although, of course, to yield interesting results, every theory that pretends to fit, more or less, a scientific scheme of research, has to simplify the real. Yet it absolutely has to be confronted with the facts. The reader ignorant of what occurs in economics faculties may wonder what we mean by "imaginary worlds." This is actually about little models, supposed to represent economy and its functioning. Frequently, the economic agents are only two, and merely exchange the goods with which Nature much opportunely endowed them. Even sometimes the models include only one agent, declared representative. The relevance of this approach generally remains unjustified during the class. Thus one describes an autoproduction economy, with no exchange - the economy of Robinson Crusoé, as it is often called - in which coordination problems between different agents are carefully set aside. Other models start from hypotheses that make us think more of a planned economy rather than a market economy (no exchange can occur in a decentralized way and it is a unique center that sets all prices for exchanges). Even game theory (a set of logic-mathematical games), which is supposed to analyze the agents’ strategic behaviors, is but normative (it studies how actors would behave if they were rational and endowed with enormous computing capacities) and not positive (how actors really behave).
One will not be surprised, then, that the students, who chose the economics branch to acquire an in-depth understanding of the economic phenomena, be quickly disappointed by what they are proposed! "A more-or-less far paradise". We will be answered that one first has to "learn the chords," and master a "toolbox" to be used later (in a more-or-less far paradise). But the same argument comes back on freshman years, on junior years, on the "maîtrise" year (the French B.A), etc. And it is striking to note with what the jury of the French agrégation of economics reproaches the candidates who, let’s remind you of this, are themselves doctors in economics: "The relevance of the choice of the instruments of analysis, of the type of modeling adapted in relation to the problem tackled is insufficiently justified and sometimes very questionable. A sensible hiatus is thus created between the ’results’ inferred from a series of demonstrations, often rigorous on the formal plan, and the understanding the author and his or her reader expect to gain about the studied problem" (Excerpt from the report by the jury of the agrégation of economic sciences, 1997-1998, http://www.dauphine/edocif/agreg.html)

Dogmatism

The second reason for the students’ dissatisfaction stems from the dogmatism prevailing in the teaching of the discipline. This dogmatism is largely the outcome of the absence of confrontation with facts. The confrontation of the theories with facts enables us to keep only the more relevant ones: forget the facts, and the theory will be able to develop in a totally esoteric manner, without risks of being contested. Now we think the university should be a place for shaping a critical mind, for the researcher as well as for the citizen. It is not in presenting the student a juxtaposition of models, which are supposed to constitute "THE" science or "THE" economic truth, that he/she will be allowed to develop his/her capacity for reflection. Note that it is not about banning one method or another, as we too often hear. It is merely about demanding the end of this dogmatism that imposes, through a discourse of authority and not through a justified argument, the study of models cut off from any confrontation with the real data. They will say it is about, in priority, making the students in economics professionally "marketable". This answer is of a great hypocrisy: what one expects from an economist is overall a general knowledge of economic and social matters, and a working familiarity with economic mechanisms and institutions. Yet, on the contrary, the teaching of economics at the university destroys that kind of knowledge. A note from the report ordered by the French ministry of National Education on the teaching of economics at the university (unpublished to this day, but we keep some hope…), mentions this problem: "Who did not notice the loss of economic culture of an Economic and Social Sciences baccalaureate graduate after two years spent in a faculty of economics"?
The students’ dissatisfaction (which appears objectively in the numerous signatures we have been able to obtain) has to be taken seriously. For that, a certain number of principles should be abided by: presenting the vested political and social interests which contributed to the advent of the theories studied, mobilizing more often the empirical data and the economic history to enlighten or question the relevance of the models presented, starting from the concrete problems with which contemporary society is today confronted, leaving place for several theories, etc. In short, these are elementary principles we are surprised to have to spell out in these lines.

 
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