Laura Rahmeier, Stella Wasenitz, Teun Dekker and Sebastian Preuss Laura Rahmeier, Stella Wasenitz, Teun Dekker and Sebastian Preuss Arjen Schmitz

Four foxes on the future of economics education

In Money
Written by  Femke Kools Thursday, 15 October 2015 14:41

Economic developments can naturally be viewed from one, mainstream perspective, but that’s not what the more critical student at Maastricht University is looking for. On the back of the international initiative Pluralism in Economics (PINE), PINE UCM was established in October 2014, followed by a group at the School of Business and Economics. Here, three representatives and the acting UCM dean talk about the future of economics education and the difference between foxes and hedgehogs.

 

 

In his first contribution to the conversation acting UCM dean Teun Dekker refers to the philosopher Isaiah Berlin, who divided thinkers in two categories: hedgehogs and foxes. The first to make this distinction was the Greek poet Archilochus: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Dekker: “A lot of the teaching at economic faculties in general – and I say this not as a value judgement – is about economics for hedgehogs: there’s one big idea. UCM students are by their nature foxes. They have many ideas and don’t take one theory for granted.”

Mainstream economics
This is exactly why Stella Wasenitz and Laura Rahmeier joined the PINE UCM initiative, and Sebastian Preuss the PINE SBE group. The problem they see is that economics education is dominated by mainstream (neoclassical) economic theory. “This marginalises other elements of economics, and the world that economics is supposed to actually grasp”, says Wasenitz. “We’d like students to be aware that there are different schools of thought”, adds Rahmeier. “And that the assumptions behind economic theories can be questioned: it’s not the Truth, although it’s presented that way.” Preuss: “Take the financial crisis. The main economic theory assumes that it was caused by a shock from outside the economic system. That it’s a kind of flood that we can protect ourselves against by building higher walls, so to speak. But in my group we discussed a paper by Hyman Minsky, who developed a theory that explains such a crisis from the inside, and points out why these crises have to happen once in a while. That’s a completely different view that requires totally different measures.” Rahmeier chimes in again: “The aim at UCM is to have students who think critically. It’s important to be able to look at the world from different perspectives, to see new solutions.”

Assessment report
Last June, PINE UCM delivered an assessment report at a symposium attended by representatives from other university colleges in the Netherlands. The aim of the symposium was to evaluate the current curriculum and make recommendations as to how it could be made more pluralistic. In addition, lectures, reading circles and discussions were organised to increase students’ awareness of the economic paradigms beyond the mainstream. The aim of the movement can be summed up as ‘more critical thinking, not just solving equations’. “But without offering economics ‘lite’ ”, says Dekker. “That’s one of the misconceptions about this movement. These PINE people aren’t scared of mathematics. As a science, mainstream economics is an amazing thing, with all its mathematical rigour and predictive power. But there’s more to life than that. So we have to find a way to make sure students get the depth and the rigour, but at the same time create room to explore different ideas.”

Preuss has to admit that the proportion of ‘foxes’ among SBE students is lower than at UCM. “People are comfortable with learning one thing very well. And if you end up working in the field of economics, you’ll need that mainstream knowledge – but that’s not to say you can’t add something on top. It might be worth sacrificing some very technical courses in favour of PINE-related ones. Questioning assumptions is usually more important than being able to calculate a model with just another variable in it. That’s one of the things PINE SBE will suggest in the future. We already spoke to the macroeconomics department and they were very positive about our initiative, but it takes time to adjust things.”

Teacher’s dream
Dekker: “It’s a dream for any teacher to have that kind of conversation with your students. These people aren’t complaining; they’re taking the time to have a discussion, write a report and engage. That makes me so proud.” He realises the ball is in his court now. Since UCM is a collaboration of faculties, he will be meeting with the curriculum committee and teachers from SBE to discuss the options for altering the course catalogue, which will be drawn up next February. “It’s a balancing act between giving people what they want and what they need for the future. You want to make sure that students get an education they’ll also be happy with in fifteen years. At the same time, this is a marketplace: if students don’t appreciate our economics courses, we’ll end up with fewer students. But the main thing is having the conversation.”

Although PINE UCM was the first group in the Netherlands, the initiative is no longer merely local. Groups have been launched at other Dutch universities, a national initiative is working to coordinate the groups in the Netherlands, and the movement is continuing to flourish abroad. “We get a lot of positive feedback from students and alumni. UCM takes us very seriously as well, and we want to make use of that”, says Wasenitz. “We can have an influence.”

Teun Dekker (1980) is acting dean of University College Maastricht (UCM). He seeks to use the methods of analytical philosophy to shed light on social issues, bridging the humanities and the social sciences.

Laura Rahmeier (1994) and Stella Wasenitz (1994) are third-year UCM students and members of the group that wrote the PINE UCM Assessment Report, ‘Economics education in a liberal arts context’.

Sebastian Preuss (1989) is a master’s student in Financial Economics at the School of Business and Economics and a member of the PINE SBE group.

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