Economics education needs a revolution

25 May, 2019 at 17:36 | Posted in Economics | 13 Comments

Economics has become a rather quaint and highly guarded discipline. We urgently need to update economics education to change this – because economics, as taught in universities, does not reflect or speak to many of the issues of the real world, be they political, environmental or social.

retTake the tricky entanglement between politics and economics, which economists tend to try to avoid. Such an attempt is futile. Sidelining politics, history and broader ideas while teaching economics, as most professors do, is like studying the “natural” flows of water in the Netherlands without taking into account that there are people living there who are steering it, building dikes, reclaiming land and channelling the water – and ignoring that they have been doing this for thousands of years already. You can’t study the system while ignoring the people who make it …

Economists speak in numbers only, clinging to statistical data and quantitative models. We do so in the hope of looking objective. But this is counter-productive – “data” cannot tell us everything. Other social sciences such as sociology and anthropology use a broader range of methods, and consequently have a broader perspective on society …

Undergraduate economists all over the world learn theories from textbooks that have barely changed since the 1950s. Those theories are based on individual agents, competing in markets to maximise narrowly defined “economic utility” (for people) or profit (for firms). The principles are taught with the same certainty as Newtonian physics, and are as devoid of value judgements.

This is absurd. Clearly, there are values; mainstream economics values efficiency, markets and growth – and puts individuals over collectives. Yet undergraduates are not taught to recognise, let alone question, these values – and the consequences are serious.

Joris Tieleman

A couple of years ago we could see the author in action in this must-see video:

Nowadays there is almost no place whatsoever in economics education for courses in the history of economic thought and economic methodology. This is deeply worrying. A science that doesn’t self-reflect and asks important methodological and science-theoretical questions about the own activity, is a science in dire straits. How did we end up in this sad state?

Already back in 1991, a commission chaired by Anne Krueger and including people like Kenneth Arrow, Edward Leamer, and Joseph Stiglitz, reported from own experience “that it is an underemphasis on the ‘linkages’ between tools, both theory and econometrics, and ‘real world problems’ that is the weakness of graduate education in economics,” and that both students and faculty sensed “the absence of facts, institutional information, data, real-world issues, applications, and policy problems.” And in conclusion, they wrote that “graduate programs may be turning out a generation with too many idiot savants skilled in technique but innocent of real economic issues.”

Not much is different today. Economics — and economics education — is still in dire need of a remake.

rethinkMore and more young economics students want to see a real change in economics and the way it’s taught. They want something other than the same old mainstream catechism. They don’t want to be force-fed with useless mainstream theories and models.


  1. Couldn’t agree more. Around the late 19th Century Neoclassicals began conflating land with capital around the same time of a bogus ‘marginal revolution’ (as a distraction?). Michael Hudson’s ‘J is for Junk Economics’ shows how economic taxonomy has been inverted to convince students there is no such thing as a free lunch ie Economic Rent.

    • I’m fascinated by your theory that the idea “economic rent” is the same thing as the idea that there is no such thing as a free lunch. Can you expand on that?

      • The way I read Frankle326’s post is that economics teaches that there is no such thing as economic rent. I would describe a mortgage-backed security as an economic rent since investors receive returns without owning land or paying property taxes.

      • What J.S. Mill and others called the unearned increment. Legal Privilege to natural opportunity. Land, or more specifically, economic land, no person had a hand in physically creating.

  2. A science has to ask, “is it true?” And, accept “no” for an answer. This economics does not do reliably and regularly. The failure to recognize and reject conceptions, models, hypotheses, assertions as false, invalid, inadequate, unfactual is the consequence of not embracing critical methods (and the study of methodology critical methods require) and the unaccountable ignorance and incuriosity about the phenomena of the actual, institutional economy reflected in the neglect of history and the obsession with statistical methods that abstract away from most of the available information.

    Pious rhetoric about “linkages” almost seems like a dodge to me. Talking about what economics supposedly needs to do more of distracts from the central problem, which is that for all the braying about “rigor”, mainstream economics is fundamentally doing economics wrong. Core assertions of the vision at the center of economics reasoning and teaching are dogmas empty of valid logical or factual support.

    The infamous smorgasbord Dani Rodrik is so proud of has become crowded because the profession does not know enough about method or history to reject most of these models as the idle and ill-conceived speculation they are.

    • I think they’re trying to make their model shape reality. I’m reminded of Lagarde recently admonishing the world economy for not meeting IMF growth projections. It’s not that the IMF economists were wrong; the world did wrong by not validating the IMF model.

    • Absolutely fabulous 🙂

      • Strange comment regarding this song from a critical realist! 🙂
        More than 40 years ago I shared a house with a fellow who, every Sunday morning at 9am would play the Supertramp album this song is from at high volume – his big bad Bose speakers were just outside my room – after we had all gone to bed at 6am.
        The words to this song are forever embedded in my subconscious.

        • Well Henry, after all — music is NOT science 🙂

          • Lars,
            I would say the sentiments in the lyrics of the song belie a critical realist perspective.
            I’d say you’re a not so closet romantic.
            Don’t worry, we won’t put you in to the thought police. 🙂

  3. Interesting. Following.

  4. […] whether it is all worth it to society? To his credit Lars P. Syll did, proving the exception (see here). […]

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