Economics, and Economists, for the 21st Century
It has been 8 years since the ISIPE Open Letter was published in 2014. Since then, much has changed in the world - but has economics education also reacted to these developments?
With the COVID-19 pandemic, the movement for change in economics education felt that we needed to update our message. Throughout a series of workshops and consultations over the course of the pandemic, the opinions from students from all over the world were collected on this foundational question: what is wrong with economic education? This Call for Change tries to condense these thoughts.
Eduardo Lacerda de Camargo (RE São Paulo), Luisa Jentsch (NPO, Germany), Karen Mendiola (RE UNAM, Mexico), Ross Cathcart (Rethinking Economics International), Adeyemo Seun Isaiah (RE The Uploaders, Nigeria), Sonal Raghuvanshi (RE India Network)
We are living through a period of crisis along many axes: public health, planetary emergency, class, gender, and racial inequality, to name but a few of the most important ones. The advent of the COVID-19 global pandemic; the heightened profile of racial equality movements around the world; the increase in natural disasters due to climate collapse: these are not only acute issues that dominate newspaper headlines and governmental agendas in the present. They are deep, pervasive issues that show no signs of disappearing.
As engaged citizens, we can see that “business as usual” can no longer apply. And yet as students, we recognise that while the pace of change in economics education and the discipline itself cannot match the speed of current events, we are concerned that there is no attempt to adapt and reflect. This open letter does not pretend to provide all of the answers to our questions. It is a call to action to build an economics education that is rigorously reflective, academically inquisitive, diverse in representation and pluralist in content.
The past two years have underscored the limitations of the economics toolbox provided to students. We ask if economics students are equipped to understand how governments around the world have reacted to the economic crisis posed by the COVID-19 pandemic? Overcoming the host of intersecting issues that we face will require proactive and creative solutions by better understanding the intellectual foundations of our discipline. A plurality of methods and economic perspectives is required so that economists working in the 21st Century are equipped to fix the embedded, complex societal problems we face. The process towards finding these solutions needs to start through pluralist classroom training. There are two trajectories that require our attention - economics education and economists.
To this day, if you go into most economics classrooms around the world, you will be taught about people as if they all make economic decisions in broadly the same way. This treatment rarely takes into account our complex and reactive world. Context matters, the world is not the same for everybody. The same principles cannot be applied with the assumption that it will work when faced with drastically different circumstances. This flawed approach translates into policy being implemented that is not reflective of the lived realities of the communities they impact. Economics should mould its theories according to the real world and not expect the real world to be shaped by its theories.
We are concerned that tomorrow’s economic thinkers and practitioners will not be adequately equipped with the “plumbing” tools to deal with large-scale crises and uncertainty as well as real-life problems which have been little covered in the economics curricula.
Economics education does not exist in a vacuum. Economics teaching shapes not only people’s understanding of the world but also their ability to have a substantial impact on it. And yet, our discipline has often been accused of a lack of humility and a reluctance to engage with the other social sciences and with the natural sciences. The consequences of a lack of interdisciplinary education mean that interdependent events are only seen from a very limited tunnel vision. It is vital to include other social and natural sciences back in the economic education and debate as has been in the past, in a true interdisciplinary discussion.
The rules of the game, as to what economics is and ought to be, continues to be defined by the powerful players in the global hierarchy: namely the ‘top universities’, ‘top journals’, ‘top conferences’. We do not claim that this groupthink is a product of ill intentions, but, in reality, these institutions fail to be open spaces for new ideas and their thinking is limited in addressing the lives of those on the margins. This is especially relevant since economic policy decisions have profound implications for the lives of ALL people. The work of the economist should be to simplify in an accessible language the content of those debates, not to complicate them. We call for an end to this gate-keeping; it’s time to open the gate!
Opening the gate requires an acknowledgement of the role economists play in society. It is time that the various axes of power relations like class, caste, race, gender, sexuality, ability, religion, and colonial history among many others become central to knowledge production within the discipline. We want to be taught about how someone’s role in a society does determine economic aspects and for this to happen, economists must be self-aware of their own position, recognise their potential biases and engage in critical reflection on them. The change needs to happen through the discipline in its entirety, from the classroom to the conference, if we are to build a space that is truly diverse and inclusive.
The economics discipline fails to critically reflect on what it means to be an economist in the 21st Century and economics education fails to interrogate the skills and capacities that it needs to provide its students to meet this challenge. Then the question remains, what does a 21st-Century Economist look like? ‘Good economics’ is not a destination but a constant process of evaluation and re-evaluation. Economists must be self-aware of their position in society. We all have our biases and while they cannot be eliminated, they can be minimised by creating a diverse discipline. Economists should be aware of them, actively acknowledge their position, and engage in critical reflection on them.
But this picture of the 21st-century economist is far from a reality. We have work to do: here’s how you can help:
As a student
Join the movement to reform the economics discipline. Find the local RE Group near you. If there isn’t one, get in touch.
Use your voice! Speak to your coursemates, arrange a meeting with members of your teaching department.
As an academic:
Listen to the students in your department: meet with them and recognise their concerns
Produce the resources, courses and modules that will provide your students with a pluralist, interdisciplinary and diverse education rooted in the real world
Strive for change: diversity and inclusion within academia is not something that should happen only once a year, it should be a consistent strategy to achieve tangible results.
As a supporter of our work:
Stand for change: start a conversation in your networks and help make economic issues, issues of society.
Amplify our voices: share the work of our movement widely in your networks.
Support our work: We are excited to collaborate with organisations and movements working towards similar goals.
We are living through a period of crisis on many axes; but this is also a period of change, reflection and most importantly hope. Peoples’ movements across the world have shown tremendous resilience and have strived for change; movements for indigenous rights, self-governance, democracy, environmental justice, racial equality among many others have demonstrated the power of collective action and thinking. Rethinking Economics sees itself in solidarity with these movements, both strategically and in action. We invite you - whether you are a student, an academic, or anyone interested - to support us and help build the critical mass needed to shift the economics discipline into the 21st Century.