Tackling the ‘Crisis of Conformity’ in Economics Teaching

The conformity in economics teaching in many ways is the most damaging aspect of our current economics discipline. Thousands of graduates all round the world enter work each year with the impression that there is only one way of thinking about organising our economies. Innovative and critical thinking is crushed just when we need it most given our current social, environmental and economic crises. We believe we can’t wait for the mainstream to change. With your support, we intend to build a new international movement for teaching from a pluralist perspective.

Following revelations of the extraordinary inadequacy of economic models, many expected a revolution similar to those in the 1930s and 70s with new ideas flowing in to mainstream economics departments. However as INET has shown here, this has not happened. Economics thinking and research faces a crisis of conformity.

Unsurprisingly the same is true of most economics teaching.  After all, broadly the same people are doing the teaching as do the research. With the pervasive use of standard text books, there is even less space for diversity and innovation.

“Along with this student movement, we believe that supporting critical reflection through recognising different approaches to understanding the economy is critical to good and ethical teaching.”

This is in spite of a revolt by students around the world against economics teaching. To them it seemed totally disconnected from their real lived experience of the 2007/8 financial crisis. This revolt started with the Post-Crash Economics Society in the University of Manchester, UK and now through Rethinking Economics has groups in universities around the world. Unfortunately, though, not so many are in the US. It is members of this movement that has documented the continued conformity in economics teaching in their book, Econocracy.

There is one innovation, the CORE curriculum. It is certainly more engaging than standard courses and puts economic history back into economics teaching. However it determinedly and transparently sticks to teaching economics as if there was only one approach to analysing economic phenomena. It does not support critical reflection based on an understanding that there is more than one way of thinking about the economy and they don’t give the same answers to policy questions.

“Clearly we need to break out of this conformity of economic thinking that is not only deaf to other perspectives but has ceased to have credibility.  Recent political turbulence has demonstrated that in spades.”

Along with this student movement, we believe that supporting critical reflection through recognising different approaches to understanding the economy is crucial to good and ethical teaching.

Graduates then have the tools to challenge and question thinking on how we organise our economy.  More generally it helps them understand and talk to different perspectives, to be part of dialogues rather than assert a single perspective that has been drummed into them.

Clearly we need to break out of this conformity of economic thinking that is not only deaf to other perspectives but has ceased to have credibility. Recent political turbulence has demonstrated that in spades. We also know, even before the most recent IPCC report – reports which by their nature are always conservative in assessing climate change risks – economic business as usual is not sustainable. The need for reform is more urgent than ever but the continuing sway of economic conformity in governments, finance and business suffocates new thinking.

“There are many lecturers who teach different ways of thinking about the economy and encourage critical reflection.”

We have to accept that change is not going to come anytime soon in teaching in mainstream economics departments.  Most economists agree that monopolists will resist competition. Mainstream economists control access to and teaching in top university departments, an effective monopoly. They tend only to be trained in one form of economics precisely due to the crisis of conformity, so their main interest is in maintaining the status quo and the current institutions reinforce this as so well documented by INET.

However this is not true of all economics teaching. There are many lecturers who teach different ways of thinking about the economy and encourage critical reflection. These lecturers draw from a wide range of economic traditions such as ecological, institutional, complexity and post-Keynesian economics. This is often referred to as new economics but its roots go back to the 1930s and further. There is a wealth of scholarship and literature, which is largely ignored by the mainstream.

“Some of these departments and centres are in high ranking universities such as Princeton, MIT, Oxford, Cambridge, LSE and UCL, but outside their economic departments who cling to conformity.”

Much of this teaching actually happens outside economics departments – with notable exceptions – in such departments as international relations, environment and geography, psychology, sociology and development, and in interdisciplinary centres all around the world.  This is where pressures to conform have exiled the non-conformers.  You can see many of these departments and their courses here. Some of these departments and centres are in high ranking universities such as Princeton, MIT, Oxford, Cambridge, LSE and UCL, but outside their economic departments who cling to conformity.

These courses have a whole range of labels. For the uninitiated, it is not obvious they take a pluralist approach to economics nor is such assurance provided. We intend to help raise the profile and establish the wider legitimacy of these types of courses so students are encouraged to join them and other universities are encouraged to put them on. We have chosen to start with masters courses as university departments have much more flexibility over what they can teach at this level. Students from these courses will also be entering the ‘real world’ very soon to use their learning.

“The point of this is not to determine what economics is ‘right’ or which courses are ‘best’.  It is to build a shared sense between those inside and outside of academia, including employers, of what economic teaching looks like that fosters creativity and critical thinking to address real world issues ie prepares students to take on 21stcentury challenges.”

We will co-create an accreditation system to establish a common international identity and ‘brand’, which is widely understood and supported. We already have some influential supporters in policy, finance and business as you can see here. They include the Chief of Staff at the OECD, the Chair of the biggest European investment management company and the UK Trade Union General Secretary. They are not just the usual suspects and cross the political spectrum.

The point of this is not to determine what economics is ‘right’ or which courses are ‘best’. It is to build a shared sense between those inside and outside of academia, including employers, of what economic teaching looks like that fosters creativity and critical thinking to address real world issues ie prepares students to take on 21st century challenges. Then potential students can easily and confidently find these courses and employers can understand their significance. We will also of course work closely with Rethinking Economics and the student movement to magnify this effect.

To turn this idea into reality, we want to invite you to participate in actually co-creating the scheme. This doesn’t mean that you necessarily have to get involved in the detail or devote huge amounts of time to it. We will ensure people can give their views on the principles and broad approach as easily as possible. Please sign-up here to be involved and if you first want to find out more, sign up for a webinar here. And please make sure to also register your public support for this initiative here. It is crucial that we demonstrate a diverse and wide-ranging support for this initiative. Your voice matters.

I look forward to building this new international institution with your help to support the world in braking out of the crisis of conformity and developing new social innovations to address the huge and growing challenges we face as a species in the 21stcentury.

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I offered a blog on these lines to INET who initially showed interest:

“Dear Henry, What you describe below is a fit for us and we’re happy to receive and review a blog for consideration.  I’m including in copy my colleague Moira Herbst VP of Communications at INET who will liaise with you on next steps and process. Best regards, Ramon Ramon Contreras Chief Operating Officer Institute for New Economic Thinking”  

However after I sent this blog and it was forwarded to Rob Johnson, INET President, for consideration as he has ‘a personal interest in this agenda’, the following email came back:

“Dear Henry, Thanks again for the submission. We conferred with Rob and our research team, and unfortunately the piece isn’t a fit for us. The research team had a number of substantive concerns on the analysis from their point of view and addressing them would amount to a wholly different piece. I’m sorry we can’t be more helpful on this, and wish you the best of luck with the webinar and other endeavors.  All the best, Moira Moira Herbst SVP of Communications + Editorial Director
Institute for New Economic Thinking (INET)”

Do please let me know in comments below what you think their “substantive concerns on the analysis” might have been. I am awaiting a response from them to clarify. One might ask who has a ‘crisis of conformity’….

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