Is Heterodox Economic Pedagogy Flawed?


I won’t bury the lead.  Yes I think heterodox pedagogy is critically flawed at least at the popular and undergraduate levels.  Yesterday I had the fortune of bearing witness to a exchange between a sociologist and an economist.  Both are well published and respected within their respective fields.  Predictably, it was a dialogue of the deaf.  The sociologist merely inquired why the economist was intent on stripping-out the faintest of pretences of a pluralist education in economics by removing the history of economic thought from the core of his graduate curriculum.  The response was boiler-plate and smug as should be expected:  ‘We give our graduate students the best education in line with what the vast majority of other economics departments in North America deem to be acceptable standards.’  He continued: ‘an education that prepares our students to publish in the leading journals in the field of economics and obtain jobs in and outside of the academy.’

The message being that economics serves the economics profession and its private sector masters.  It has no obligation to even be remotely relevant to contemporary economic problems; and certainly no obligation to adjust its curriculum in light of overwhelming contradictory evidence with respect to its hard core.  It is the market that is the judge and jury of their curriculum.  And to be fair, much the same can be said of every other discipline.  The difference being that most other disciplines the wings of the angels are expected to caress the earth from time to time.

But this post is not about the crisis in neoclassical economics and education, rather the central argument of this post is that heterodox economic pedagogy should not be primarily if at all interested in the crisis of neoclassical economics and education.  What it should be interested in teaching is what it has to say; what its practitioners think captures reality better than competing paradigms.  We are under no obligation to actually teach neoclassical models before moving on to our own.

I have fourteen weeks in the average semester (if classes are not on Mondays or Fridays).  How many weeks should I spend teaching the marginal productivity theory distribution?  There is by now a wide agreement that the theory is impossible.  Why should I waste a week teaching the neoclassical (micro) theory of unemployment?  Here again, it is well accepted that describing unemployment as the result of an individual’s preference for leisure over work is preposterous except on the most extreme tails of the distribution.  Why would I teach that exceptional theory as the general theory?  Similarly, why would I teach Ricardian comparative advantage as the general theory of consequences of free trade when almost all agree that that the assumptions to sustain it are so extensive that it is an exceptional theory of the gains from trade.  Why would I not start from a perspective of absolute advantage and domestic competition and then extend that to an international analysis with the added wrinkle of the presence of mercantilist nations?  And only then move on to mention the extreme situation in which Ricardian comparative advantage and some social welfare maximising function could happen.

Look at the average contemporary neoclassical textbook which makes Samuelson’s classic look like pluralist playground.  To the extent that any of them cover-off competing paradigms they do so with straw-women and obfuscation.  And none of them entail spending a week on Marx, or Saffra, or Kalecki, or Robinson, Minsky or, Shaikh or Steedman, or Modern Monetary Theory to get on with the job of teaching economics.

Most Heterodox economists do not teach in economics departments and most of us don’t teach to economics majors.  We need to stop imagining that student in front of us is a card carrying neoclassical that needs to be persuaded of the errors in their ways.  And even in the case where the student in front of us has taken intro to micro and macro neoclassical economics: who cares?  Do you really believe that those students are true believers in neoclassical orthodoxy?  My experience says otherwise.  They only have a vague recollection of what they were taught in intro. To the extent that they did well, they did so because they knew how to derive the answer to the question being asked of them on a multiple choice test.  Few if any of those students who got an A or above believe what they were taught: they are mostly professional students looking for the professor’s right answer.

Sure maybe, there will be a true believer that drifts into your classroom and asks naïve but well grounded questions from the perspective of neoclassical micro.  But how much effort would it take you to disabuse them of what they understand to exist between heaven and hell?   Students do not come to your class to be taught what you think is bullshit.  They come to your class to be taught what you believe to be true and why you think it is true

I guess at the end this post what I am trying to say is that we need to be hegemonic when we teach economics.  Making the neoclassical paradigm the core of refutation is like trying to rid yourself of rats by leaving the lid off the garbage can.