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The Econocracy - How 3 undergraduates smacked down the economics professoriat


zugzwang
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Q. What's the difference between an economist and a befuddled old man with Alzheimer's?

A. The economist is the one with the calculator.

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In the autumn of 2011, as the world’s financial system lurched from crash to crisis, the authors of this book began, as undergraduates, to study economics. While their lectures took place at the University of Manchester the eurozone was in flames. The students’ first term would last longer than the Greek government. Banks across the west were still on life support. And David Cameron was imposing on Britons year on year of swingeing spending cuts.

Yet the bushfires those teenagers saw raging each night on the news got barely a mention in the seminars they sat through, they say: the biggest economic catastrophe of our times “wasn’t mentioned in our lectures and what we were learning didn’t seem to have any relevance to understanding it”, they write in The Econocracy. “We were memorising and regurgitating abstract economic models for multiple-choice exams.”

Part of this book describes what happened next: how the economic crisis turned into a crisis of economics. It deserves a good account, since the activities of these Manchester students rank among the most startling protest movements of the decade.

After a year of being force-fed irrelevancies, say the students, they formed the Post-Crash Economics Society, with a sympathetic lecturer giving them evening classes on the events and perspectives they weren’t being taught. They lobbied teachers for new modules, and when that didn’t work, they mobilised hundreds of undergraduates to express their disappointment in the influential National Student Survey. The economics department ended up with the lowest score of any at the university: the professors had been told by their pupils that they could do better.

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The most devastating evidence in this book concerns what goes into making an economist. The authors analysed 174 economics modules for seven Russell Group universities, making this the most comprehensive curriculum review I know of. Focusing on the exams that undergraduates were asked to prepare for, they found a heavy reliance on multiple choice. The vast bulk of the questions asked students either to describe a model or theory, or to show how economic events could be explained by them. Rarely were they asked to assess the models themselves. In essence, they were being tested on whether they had memorised the catechism and could recite it under invigilation.

Critical thinking is not necessary to win a top economics degree. Of the core economics papers, only 8% of marks awarded asked for any critical evaluation or independent judgment. At one university, the authors write, 97% of all compulsory modules “entailed no form of critical or independent thinking whatsoever”.

Remember that these students shell out £9,000 a year for what is an elevated form of rote learning. Remember, too, that some of these graduates will go on to work in the City, handle multimillion pound budgets at FTSE businesses, head Whitehall departments, and set policy for the rest of us. Yet, as the authors write: “The people who are entrusted to run our economy are in almost no way taught to think about it critically.”

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/feb/09/the-econocracy-review-joe-earle-cahal-moran-zach-ward-perkins

 

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  • 9 months later...

Excellent book - a real eye-opener on how Economics as taught today is just a series of models that don't really work, and very little to do with 'economics' as it is experienced in the real world. I wish the student movement success in their attempt at a root-and-branch reform of the discipline, and hope the book spreads the message that academic economic theory cannot bear the weight and influence it currently has in society.

 

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I teach some economics modules at a University and can confirm that this rubbish is mostly what it taught. It's not *entirely* the lecturers' fault however, since so many students have to be taught nowadays that without some use of multiple choice you just have more marking to do than is humanly possible whilst also doing your research and admin.

On the syllabus, on my modules I teach critical post-keynesian, ecological and behavioural economics, not the neoclassical stuff. I did this by not asking for permission, which would probably have been refused. The students like it, so I am fine. So far, that is. I cannot discuss this openly with colleagues however, most of whom do not see the error of teaching the canon.

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