The Economists of Tomorrow: The Case for Assertive Pluralism in Economics Education

By Freeman, Alan | The American Journal of Economics and Sociology, November 2010 | Go to article overview

The Economists of Tomorrow: The Case for Assertive Pluralism in Economics Education


Freeman, Alan, The American Journal of Economics and Sociology


Introduction

This article is a proposal to change the way economists are educated by applying the principle of "assertive pluralism" to the definition and concept of economics.

This will equip the public to recognize bad economics, which I define as economics that takes no precautions against the possibility of error. It offers a remedy for what Colander et al. (2009) describe as a "systemic failure" of economics, prior to the crash of 2008. And it offers the profession a defense against the cause of this failure, which, following Turner (Tett 2009), I describe as its regulatory capture by financial interests.

The objectives are intimately linked: a definition of good economics equips the public to demand good economists. By embedding this definition in the requirements placed on economics education providers, a supply of good economists will be created. Both will conspire to produce a generation of economists who can react, and prepare for, those changes in the world that their predecessors were so poorly placed to foresee or react to.

The U.K. Context

The methodology proposed--assertive pluralism--has wider implications for the reform of economics. It is a general principle, applicable equally inside and outside the United Kingdom and in all spheres of economic practice and theory including research, publication, selection, and promotion, the procurement of policy advice, and, not least, funding. I focus however on U.K. higher education. For the information of readers unfamiliar with the way this has evolved, at this point some context may be helpful.

The article outlines the rationale for, and principles behind, a pluralist Subject Benchmark Statement for Economics (SBSE). It is an offshoot of a consultation (Freeman 2007) undertaken by the Association for Heterodox Economics (AHE) to provide input for a consultative review of the SBSE undertaken by the U.K. Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) in 2007. This led to an AHE-sponsored paper (Freeman 2009) in a special edition of the International Review of Economics Education (Denis 2009), a journal published by the Economics Network, the main practitioner body for developing economics teaching in the UK.

The discussion it reflects is thus quite well advanced in the United Kingdom. In 2009 the AHE was asked to address the U.K. Committee of Heads of University Departments of Education (CHUDE), which is formally charged with establishing the SBSE. With CHUDE's support the AHE proposed a panel on pluralism in economics education to the 2010 conference of the Royal Economic Society (RES), effectively the profession's highest U.K. body.

The RES however declined to accept. Such refusal, two years into the present crisis, to even consider a discussion on curriculum change, adds weight to the conclusions of this article that significant structural and institutional reforms are required in economics.

Subject benchmarks were themselves introduced by the QAA, itself established following a review of higher education conducted at the request of the U.K. Labour government in 1997, headed by Ron Dearing. (1)

The QAA, continuing the practice of "audits," which began in 1990, initially concentrated on the teaching and learning process as such, rather than content. However Dearing had recommended that "standards should be developed by the academic community itself, through formal groupings for the main areas of study." Accordingly in 1999, the first three subject benchmarks were released for consultation and a further 19 in 2000. By the middle of the last decade, benchmarks existed to cover almost all subjects. In consequence, imperceptibly but relentlessly, the content of teaching entered into the definition of "quality" of teaching in the United Kingdom.

A latent conflict between standards and diversity was recognized from the outset. As Dearing (1997: 10.3) noted:

   Uniformity of programmes and national curricula, one possible
   approach to the development of national standards, would deny
   higher education the vitality, excitement and challenge that comes
   from institutions consciously pursuing distinctive purposes, with
   academics having scope to pursue their own scholarship and
   enthusiasms in their teaching. … 

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