Breaking Down the Walls, Opening Up the Field: Situating the Economics Classroom in the Site of Social Action

Article excerpt

The curtain rises on a scene: an introductory economics classroom, where students are sitting in neat rows. The professor begins the class by reminding students that "economics is the study of how scarce resources are allocated among unlimited wants" and proceeds to draw on the board a graph examining bow the price and quantity of good X are affected by an increase in demand. In order to explain how the market achieves its new equilibrium, the professor then goes through, in a linear, logical fashion, exactly how inventory shortages lead the sellers of good X to raise its price, which causes buyers to purchase fewer units while simultaneously causing the sellers to increase the number of units they offer on the market. Sellers continue to raise prices until they eliminate their shortages, at which point supply equals demand, and the market achieves equilibrium. Enthusiastically, the professor concludes that due to the workings of the market, our scarce resources can be shown to be allocated efficiently and all is right with the world--a point missed by most students who are at best disengaged or at worst asleep--because the professor's explanation neither reflects the complex world in which those students live nor does his or her analysis seem terribly relevant to the contemporary economic issues facing these students.

As a feminist-institutionalist economist, I find this scene disturbing for, several reasons: first because of the abstract reductionism of the neoclassical paradigm and its limitations in addressing contemporary social issues, and the lack of connection between the simplistic economics of the classroom and the complex economic activity in the world. In addition, I am disturbed because the above scenario captures the flavor of the economics classroom that, until recently, I taught in--a classroom where the professor, as authority, disciplines the students in bow economists think by showing them the abstract theoretical models of neoclassical economics, models emphasizing linear, logical, and rational analysis premised on the scarcity definition of economics. In that classroom of the past, I quickly learned that my students would not sit with rapt attention, marvelling at the elegance of these abstract models, and that they were more than a little disturbed by the model's apparent lack of applicability to contemporary economic issues, as well as by many of the underlying assumptions and limited scope of analysis. In addition, in that classroom of the past, I was increasingly concerned that my students did not fully appreciate how helpful economics could be in understanding today's complex world and that my classes also did little to prepare them to be engaged, critical citizens in the world; that is, I found that my classroom was not serving as a site of social action in which my students learned to use economics to engage the world. These observations and concerns led me to believe that significant changes were needed to break down the four walls enclosing the stereotypical economics classroom and to transform that room into a site of action. Today, I wish to identify the four walls that I believe have fostered the above scenario and to explore how a feminist-institutionalist economics can be instrumental in making the changes necessary for creating a more effective educational environment. These four walls are, in brief, pedagogy, content, methodology, and definition.

The First Wall-Pedagogy

The first wall that must be tumbled is the pedagogical wall. Active and critical engagement that encourages "doing" is one of the primary goals of both feminist and active learning pedagogical practices, both of which have evolved, in part, from John Dewey's progressive education tradition [Maher and Tetreault 1994, 9; Bonwell and Eisen 1994, 1]. Thus, these pedagogical practices are rooted in the same pragmatic philosophical tradition as institutional economics itself, and, as I have argued elsewhere, share the goal of creating environments that foster social action [Lewis 1994,6-9]. …