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“it really isn’t education at all, but proselytization”

July 31, 2013

This is a new post from Jack Reardon on the WEA Pedagogy Blog

It is a great privilege and a pleasure to be one of three editors of this pedagogy blog. Reforming economics education is my life’s work and I am honoured to work with committed individuals like Edward, Maria and Asad.

As an undergraduate I started as physics major and then switched to economics. I knew something was wrong with economics, but couldn’t put my finger on it at first. Physics, like most disciplines  has its controversies and even ideologues, but I was not ready for the onslaught of fundamentalism mixed in with proselytization. I almost switched back to physics but stayed with economics and pursued a doctorate. I immersed myself in my own research paradigm, and while always concerned about how we educate our students, it remained on  the back burner until I submitted an article to a mainstream economics journal.  It was an enjoyable article to write; I used deductive logic to prove that the  much cherished neoclassical assertion that a labor union is inconsistent in the model of perfect competition is specious. My article began and accepted the rigid assumptions of perfect (and pure) competition; then corrected the specious logic; finally deductively proved that given the stringent assumptions of perfect and pure competition, a labor union can efficiently allocate resources within the model. I guess I was naive but I eagerly submitted this to mainstream journals blithely assuming the editors would jump at the chance to publish a corrected version of a well-known argument that appears in every principles of economics textbook. Not only was I wrong but I was unprepared for the stonewalling by editors and referees and their visceral hostility (Steve Keen reports a very similar experience  in Debunking Economics ). One particular letter from a reviewer hit me very hard: He/she said tersely, “How dare you!”

That moment (when I read the referee’s letter) was an epiphany: all my doubts and misgivings crystallized into a pithy indictment of economics education –  that it really isn’t education at all, but proselytization. A little like Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus, I radically redirected my research and professional work and have now made a radical  reformation of economics and economics education my life’s work. In 2009 I published my  Handbook for Pluralist Economics Education (Routledge 2009) and founded a new journal in economics education– The International Journal of Pluralism and Economics Education. Expecting a lot of hostility and ideological obstacles, I was pleasantly surprised to experience the opposite. I have also learned that the desire for deep-seated change in economics education spans the globe  and have met a lot of like-minded individuals. But our work is just beginning: we all have ideas to contribute and all of our ideas must be heard.

Here are my philosophical tenets (and goals) in a nutshell:

(1) Economics education is a misnomer: we proselytize rather than educate; and we provide our students with a 19th century map in order to  study 21st century  problems. Our goal must be to educate and not to proselytize.

(2) Pluralism is essential in a reconceptualized economics education: all views within economics must be given credence and students must be exposed.

(3) Economics is useful is solving our current problems but not in its current form.

(4) The distinction between the social sciences is artificial and no longer efficacious.  Instead of teaching our students to think like economists we must teach them how to be compassionate and concerned about the world’s problems.

(5) It is not enough to tinker along the edges, but the curriculum must be radically reformed from top to bottom.

(6) Economics should be renamed Political Economy and we should continue to look for lessons from the past.

(7) Successfully changing economics education is beyond the task of any one individual; it must be a global and sustained effort.

(8)  A  lot has been written on the failures, liabilities,  and weaknesses of neoclassical economics, but the reason these arguments fall on deaf ears, so to speak, is economics education:  we train our students to disparage and ignore critical arguments, rather than listen, dialogue and learn. So the fault is with economics education and this is where  we must begin. It isn’t easy and cannot happen overnight.

(9) I am interested in specific ways to crack the neoclassical citadel to implement reform and change the curriculum. I will post a few blogs soon and am very interested in hearing and learning your ideas and suggestions.

I look forward to posting more blogs and conversing with all of you!


Jack Reardon

Editor, International Journal of Pluralism and Economics Education

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