Strength in Numbers

Imagine yourself in an introductory macroeconomics class.

The topic is economic growth — mainstream macro’s holiest of holies — and your professor is singing its praises. In the midst of his psalm, you raise your hand and ask a very reasonable question about the feasibility of endless growth on a finite planet. In return for this blasphemy, he shuts you down with a diatribe on efficiency, substitutability and the environmental Kuznets curve. You’re unsure how to respond, other students nod and take notes or derisively smirk at you, and the lecture moves on.

This is the indoctrination process at work. The process of molding your mind to the mainstream dogma, getting you to toe the line, narrow your thinking, swallow your questions. To be an effective rebel economist — to subvert the dead-end status quo and revolutionize economics education—means learning how to resist this process. And as I discussed in the introductory installment of this blog series, a successful resistance begins with organization.

Getting organized means, first and foremost, building a moral and intellectual support network among your classmates. From the above illustration, it’s easy to see why this needs to be done. Being a rebel economist is hard to tackle alone. For starters, it involves challenging your professors — the putative experts, the very people who grade your work and hold your career prospects in their hands. Without a support network, you can quickly find yourself isolated and alienated as a disruptive contrarian with a head full of half-baked notions. That shouldn’t stop you from speaking truth to power, but to be an effective agent of change, you need to ensure you’re not the only student who keeps raising her hand to challenge the dogma.

There is no single blueprint for building solidarity among your classmates. If you’re aware of other potential rebel economists in your midst, then the first step could be as simple as inviting them to a meeting to share experiences and frustrations with the curriculum, and to talk a little treason. Such meetings can also double as extracurricular opportunities to hone your chops in pluralist economic thought through the sharing and discussion of pluralist readings, or through critical analysis of the orthodoxy and its flaws. As those within the International Student Initiative for Pluralism in Economics (ISIPE) community have learned, student-led reading groups are not only a useful way to supplement curricular deficiencies, but also help build the intellectual arsenal you’ll need to take on the thought police.

If you find yourself in a staunchly mainstream department, you may need to get more creative to draw your rebel comrades out of hiding. The trick here is to open their eyes to pluralist alternatives, and instill a sense of outrage at the extreme narrowness of your curriculum. For instance, you might organize a “rethinking economics” or pluralist teach-in wherein guest speakers from inside or outside the department give workshops on subjects not included in the mainstream curriculum, such as ecological, Marxian or feminist economics. Or you could go big, and expand the teach-in into a multi-day seminar or conference. Make it exciting, but don’t take it for granted that your classmates will show up. Put up posters, pass around sign up sheets, chalk the sidewalk — whatever it takes to pack the room and swell the ranks of your potential recruits.

But no matter what you do to grab your fellow students’ attention, once you have it, make sure you’re ready to redirect it towards a compelling plan of action. A successful insurrection requires more than a compelling vision of change; it needs a practical plan to achieve it. Unfortunately, it’s all too easy, and especially in the world of academia, to get bogged down in the world of deliberation — spinning your wheels with endless discussions and seminars — and never gain traction in the world of action. To help you avoid that, in my next notebook entry, I’ll turn to the crucial question of planning with a brief overview of goal-setting and campaign-strategizing tips for rebel economists. Watch this space.

Keith Harrington