12 November 2018 12:22:00 IST

The author is Associate Professor and Faculty Dean at the Meghnad Desai Academy of Economics, Mumbai

Teaching economics to the next generation

Logic alone isn’t enough to understand the intricate weave of social and cultural forces that is economics

How do racial conflicts influence economic progress? How does the immigrant crisis affect GDP? How do social security and healthcare availability impact workforce productivity? The world of economics has gone far beyond simple cost-benefit analysis and ratios, and it is necessary for students to engage with a social reality that exceeds and escapes an exclusively taxonomic notion of the ‘economic’.

The 2008 financial crisis and the economic community’s inability to strongly predict it left a severe dent on its social relevance. The crisis and its after effects have resulted in strong calls for the discipline to step out of its cocoon of conventional ways of analysis to a more diversified perspective. Essentially, the economic thought and learning process needs to change.

Changing theories

Economics has traditionally dealt with utilising deductive reasoning of simplified models to help understand a variety of economic choices and complexities. However, the predominantly logical and mathematical basis of such observations has garnered some criticism considering the element to be judged — human behaviour — is a result of varied realities. Therefore, a deductive approach might not be enough to understand an intricate weave of social and cultural forces that is economics.

The solution lies in expending education through a process of dialogical thinking that involves dialogue or extended exchange on a concept from various points of reference. The popularity of phenomenon-based learning — a learning approach at understanding real-world events from a multidisciplinary standpoint — shows that conventional subject-based learning is ill-equipped to enable our students with relevant 21st century skills. In economics, this approach finds resonance in the work of certain communities of heterodox economists who embrace a pluralistic attitude towards a variety of economic theories — such as post Keynesian-Sraffian, Marxist-radical, institutional-evolutionary, social, feminist, Austrian, and ecological economics. Their pedagogical process draws inspiration from the other social sciences, and also the humanities, without rejecting contestability and incommensurability among the theories, while at the same time reaching for a deep common ground of interconnectivity and flow between the theories.

Strong core

By making the transition from discourses to dialogues and lessons to conversations, economic education should help students develop a capacity to negotiate a plurality of world views and perspectives. The global economic reality of today is one which consists of interactions between people of diverse cultures, and future economists need to serve as the bridge that helps make these interactions fruitful and optimised for the global economy. Such literacy entails a higher competence and skill in critical thinking across different categorical structures and conceptual ecologies.

For such a change to occur, even the academic material will have to change accordingly. In the future, we may see multi-definitional works such as Riane Eisler’s The Real Wealth of Nations: Creating a Caring Economy (2008), which argues that the work of caring and care-giving, typically performed by women and people of colour in advanced Western nations, is a vital input into a society’s productive capacity, assuming a more central role in the curriculum. These works create a space for discussion, combining diverging themes such as gender and racial politics with economic potential. It also argues for a more sharing-based social structure than the conventional domination-based understanding current economics hinges on.

Jean-Luc Godard, arguably one of the most glorious figures of the French New Wave, which redefined cinematic aesthetics, always said that it is important to have a firm grasp over a medium before you attempt to turn it completely. The same applies for the new kind of economical approach being talked about here, which presupposes an intimate knowledge of the core of economics as a subject. While students are encouraged to stray quite far from what the core of the discipline might regard as the only appropriate method of inquiry, they should have a solid training in the fundamentals of the subject to serve as a compass later on.

Future of education

With such a method of economical thinking in place, the classroom will not be just an insulated area to discuss theoretical conventions, but a melting pot that motivates students to bring their own life experiences. A dialogical introductory economics course will, from the beginning, allow students to compare and contrast their academic knowledge with actual behaviour rather than forcing all aspects of independent choice-making into the monological framework of rational behaviour.

The future economic classroom will then become a place where the process of searching is emphasised over the need to arrive at a solution. Students will develop the capacity to problematise a particular solution and discover for themselves that a properly ‘economic’ solution must necessarily engage a social reality that exceeds and escapes an exclusively taxonomic notion of the ‘economic’. There is no limit to the productive possibilities such avenues of dialogue can open up for new economic knowledge, the answers for which may not be readily available in course books.