Economics Education: Soft-CORE Reforms or Radical Pluralism?

Besides outright repression, one of the most predictable establishment responses to a revolutionary challenge is an effort at co-optation. Without ceding any real power, authorities respond to discontent by offering mild reforms couched in the language of opposition movements. This strategy serves to blunt the opposition’s edge and achieve a PR victory by promoting a false sense of unity and resolution. “See, we hear you, we’re on your side, we’ve addressed your concerns,” the message goes; and against such staid reassurances, demands for more transformative action might be brushed off as the rantings of a malcontented minority.

The shrewd rebel economist should immediately spot this mechanism at work in the economics curricular reform effort known as the CORE Project (not to be mistaken for the U.S.’s Common Core). Indeed while the material presented in the CORE authors’ forthcoming textbook The Economy is largely anodyne from a mainstream perspective, the head of the project has hailed it as a “new economics for the #Occupy generation.” Meanwhile a Financial Times editorial has painted the effort as an answer to the global student outcry for a revolution of pluralism in economics education.

But the reality of the CORE Project fails to match the rhetoric both in process and in content. For starters, while the procedural ethos of #Occupy was all about inclusive deliberation and horizontal, democratic decision making, so far CORE has effectively ignored those values in favor of a closed, top-down process where input is only elicited as a kind of pro-forma gesture toward the student advocates whose discontent the project claims to reflect. A truly open, democratic effort would at a minimum involve establishing something like a panel of student contributors whose members had been elected from groups like the International Student Initiative for Pluralism in Economics (ISIPE) and its member networks. But to look at the CORE “contributors” page, you’d think the effort had nothing to do with student advocates whatsoever, given that their presence is relegated to a few names on the “thank-you” list.

Minus serious contributions from students, it’s little surprise that the CORE material bears little resemblance to the pluralist transformation students have been calling for. The ISIPE manifesto, for example, calls for pluralism of theories, methodologies and disciplines in economics education. What this requires is parity between various schools of thought (e.g. Feminist, Marxist, Ecological, Post-Keynesian, Neoclassical etc.) emphasis on analytical tools besides math (epistemology, history of economic thought etc.) and serious cross-training in other relevant disciplines (political science, anthropology, sociology, ecology etc.). But rather than take the plunge into pluralism, CORE merely ventures to dip a cautious toe into those waters. In the first ten chapters of The Economy, major alternative thinkers such as Marx and Schumpeter see their contributions relegated to a smattering of sidebar commentary, while the analytical methodology is strictly limited to standard neoclassical modelling. Seeing as the work was drafted entirely by economists, it’s unsurprisingly also lacking in interdisciplinary content.

At best, with its passing nods to heterodoxy, and the healthy dose of skepticism it heaps on a few neoclassical fallacies such as perfect competition, The Economy is on its face a marginal improvement over the standard introductory economics texts. But given the low bar set by the latter, that’s saying very little. By no stretch of the imagination could this material be considered pluralist and the suggestion that it amounts to a curriculum for the “#Occupy generation” is patently absurd.

Fortunately, The Economy is still a work in progress with only 10 out of 21 chapters seeing a recent release online as a “beta” version. Ten more beta chapters are due to follow by the end of the year with the official roll-out slated for 2016. That leaves rebel economists with some time to push back against co-optation and highlight the gulf separating CORE from the type of pluralist revolution economics truly needs.

There are several easy ways to join the resistance. For one, you can register your disaffection with CORE by posting comments on the website, or setting up an account to offer specific feedback on the material. Better yet, team up with ISIPE and other student networks as they continue to advocate for a curriculum that is truly worthy of the #Occupy generation.

Revolution Planning 101

Who should a rebel economist turn to for inspiration? Typical candidates might include Marx, Veblen, Daly or Piketty. But how about Michel de Montaigne? Though an unlikely choice, the French Renaissance writer offers some solid strategic advice for any would-be revolutionary: “No wind helps him who does not know to what port he sails.”

Revolutionary history teaches that the winds of revolt tend to descend suddenly and powerfully. Making the most of them means not only having a precise fix on our destination, but charting a clear course to help us navigate safely around the rocks and shoals of indecision, infighting or counterrevolution. Accordingly, if you plan on fomenting rebellion in your economics program, you need to ask yourself: when the winds of revolt whip up, when my classmates rise in righteous anger and our sails are full, what then? To what port will we steer our insurrection? What does victory look like?

To answer this question is to define a concrete goal for your rebellion — step one of the planning process. Say your professors have offered you a seat at the bargaining table to discuss changes to the curriculum. Would you have a particular model curriculum to point to — a program of study which would not only add much needed plurality to the curriculum but could stand the test of academic rigor and value? Without a proper understanding of the deficiencies of the curriculum and the appropriate pluralist fixes, you’ll find it hard to get your revolt taken seriously. That’s why student groups with the International Student Initiative for Pluralism in Economics (ISIPE) have devoted so much time to addressing this curriculum content question. In France, the PEPS-Économie (PEPS) network made a media splash after undertaking a rigorous survey that revealed the near absence of real-world economic content, economic history, or interdisciplinary content in nationwide curricula. The survey enabled the PEPS students to construct a smart and strategic model curriculum. Meanwhile, UK students across the Channel, operating as a part of the Rethinking Economics network, have used similar survey work to inform the list of demands they’ve registered with their national higher education standards agency.

Step two is power mapping. This amounts to understanding the field of the struggle and the nature of the contending forces. Who are your allies and opposition? Who are the key power holders? What messages will win you support? What messages will the opposition use to attack you? What will influence the power holders? What resources (financial, material, human and otherwise) do you need to win? Where are the opposition’s vulnerabilities? This crucial reconnaissance work will enable you to develop the right strategies and tactics and avoid missteps. For example, by taking note of the way in which the orthodox thought police attempted to smear the earlier Post Autistic Economics movement as being mathematically averse or inept, PEPS students have crafted a messaging strategy which avoids such pitfalls. In a bit of messaging jiu-jitsu, they’ve now turned the math critique around, arguing that training in qualitative analysis, reflexive thinking and epistemology will only enhance the ability of economists to use their quantitative skills effectively.
Power mapping does not only hone strategies and tactics, it also provides a clearer view of your port of call, your goal. Consider the courageous walkout of Gregory Mankiw’s Econ 10 course staged by Harvard students in 2011. If their goal was to grab media attention and make a public statement about the glaring deficiencies of such mainstream courses, then they succeeded admirably, and their walkout was the right tactic. But if they had a long-term goal in mind, if they sought to launch a campaign that might in time transform the way economics is taught at Harvard, then in all likelihood they should have charted a different course — one that reserved the walkout as an escalation tactic for use at a critical rather than initial juncture. Power mapping helps you make such tactical distinctions.

The final trick to planning is to keep it flexible — don’t get wedded to any single course of action. The winds of revolt can shift at any time, and unforeseen obstacles can arise, necessitating a change in strategies and tactics. A smart rebel economist knows to keep an array of strategies and tactics on the table, and in future installments of this series, I’ll take a closer look at some of them and discuss other resources you’ll need to keep your rebellion afloat.

Meanwhile, with a new academic year about to begin, now’s the time to develop plans and get ready to launch your own campus rebellion. As you do, share your own strategies or ask questions in the comment section below. Together we’ll make this the year when the thought police start to retreat.

Keith Harrington is a campus rabble-rouser, student of economics and North American representative for the activist group International Student Initiative for Pluralism in Economics, ISIPE. The views represented in his posts are entirely his own.

Organizing Insurrection

“Economics students are in rebellion.”

In May of this year, you could find a version of that headline splashed across the pages of newspapers and other publications in over 18 countries across the globe. That month, a global network of econ students calling ourselves the International Student Initiative for Pluralism in Economics (ISIPE) released our open letter calling for an overhaul of economics education and research. Overall, it was a very diplomatic call for change — demanding a simple widening of the range of schools of thought, methodology and interdisciplinary options offered in the standard econ curriculum. But the headlines read “rebellion!” Why?

Some students might shy away from the rebel label, but given what we’re up against, it’s a fitting one. The world of mainstream economics is a monolithic empire of thought if ever there was one. Any whisper of dissent against its fundamental tenets is bound to incur a crackdown from the thought police, who invariably brand us as misguided, and seek to tame our revolutionary fury with mild reforms.

To be a rebel in such a world is a badge of intellectual valor. It’s a mark of allegiance to free-inquiry. It’s a label we need to embrace and encourage others to embrace. But as economics students from Harvard to Sydney have found out, against the power of empire, rebellions can easily fizzle out.

So how do we build the power and resilience needed to challenge the orthodoxy, dislodge its high priests, topple their ivory towers, and bring reality back into the economics classroom? Speaking out in class is a start. Putting up provocative posters is a start. Issuing manifestos is another step forward. But to overcome the power of the thought police we have to get organized. Individual actions may help stir the waters of rebellion, but to transform our discontent into a relentless, transformative tide requires long-term strategic thinking and collaboration.

Thankfully, for the would be revolutionaries among us, there are some strategic precedents and organizing models to draw upon.

ISIPE provides a great case in point. Where past flare-ups of student discontent were relatively isolated, and insular, ISIPE now provides rebel economists with a global support network to share ideas, best practices, inspirational stories and other resources to keep our insurrections going and growing. Moreover, within the ISIPE community there are dozens of national-level student networks whose experiences can yield lessons for those of us working to launch national networks of our own, as in the United States.

If you’re a budding rebel economist, hopefully you’re wondering: How do I build a student group, get it active on my campus and get connected to the growing global movement? As another school year approaches, this blog series will explore exactly those questions in several more installments over the coming weeks. Drawing on the experiences of ISIPE, national networks, and other campus organizing models, I hope to shed some light on everything from how to recruit your classmates, to how to plan a campaign and keep your rebellion rolling for the long haul. Tune back in for tips on how to turn on the heat needed to beat the thought police and transform our the economic student rebellion into a full on revolution.

Keith Harrington